New warming center opens at Midtown Kingston church

What started in 2014 as an ad-hoc effort by a group of volunteers to provide emergency cold-weather shelter to Kingston’s homeless at a Clinton Avenue church has evolved into a fully funded county-program with, as of last month, a new home.

Since its inception in the late winter of 2014, the warming center has been located at Clinton Avenue Methodist Church. The program began in the late winter of 2014 when a group of volunteers came together after a story in this newspaper highlighted the plight of people living on the streets in extreme cold weather in a city with no dedicated 24-hour warming center. Using cots donated by the Red Cross and a crew of volunteers, the group cobbled together an overnight shelter in a church gym that during the daytime served as home to the Caring Hands soup kitchen. By the following winter, the county had begun providing funding and other resources for the program. The arrangement lasted until earlier this year when Clinton Avenue Methodist Church announced that it could no longer host the warming center. The announcement set off a scramble by county officials to find a new home for the warming center and a new agency to run it.

“It was really a challenge because we needed to find a facility that met all of our needs and that had no other programming going on,” said County Executive Mike Hein. “[The warming center] needs to be ready to open at a moment’s notice and remain open for an extended period of time.”

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County officials eventually settled on AME Zion Church at 26 Franklin St. as a new location for the warming center and Catholic Charities of Orange, Sullivan and Ulster as the new administrator. The nonprofit social service agency opened the center for the first time on a frigid Thanksgiving eve and it’s been in regular operation — including for one stretch of seven straight days — ever since. 

Catholic Charities Chief Operating Officer Shannon Kelly said under the terms of its contract with Ulster County, the shelter must be open around the clock anytime the temperature dips below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The center, located in the church basement, can accommodate as many as 30 people at any given time. Visitors to the center can sleep on cots provided, or just come in to sit in a warm place and get a hot meal. An unarmed security guard is on duty whenever the shelter is open.

In past years, the shelter has served as a refuge for a vulnerable subset of the city’s homeless population — people with major serious substance abuse or mental health issues who cannot or will not comply with conditions imposed by state and federal social service programs for assistance. At the Franklin Street shelter, staffers have a mandate to take in anyone with few or no questions asked.

“We really try to be as flexible as possible,” said Kelly. “Because our main goal is to make sure that someone coming in out of the cold has a place to get warm.”

County Department of Social Services Commissioner Michael Iapoce said caseworkers would be available at the shelter to carry out needs assessments and connect visitors with services, if they want them.

“Every person who comes into the center is engaged,” said Iapoce. “Whether they want to apply for additional services is a decision they have to make, based on the information provided to them.”

The warming center is part of a broader state-mandated “Code Blue” initiative that mandates each county to have protocols in place to provide shelter and assistance during severe weather. In Ulster County, the program includes the warming center as well as a 24-hour hotline run by Family of Woodstock that can connect those in need with emergency housing. The Code Blue alert, which is administered by the county’s Office of Emergency Management, also alerts first responders and social services agencies about the location and status of shelters and other cold-weather resources.

“We’re seeing that the process that we have in place is working very well,” said Iapoce. “Fortunately we have not had any cold-weather injuries or tragedies.”  

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