With nightly lows expected to remain in the single digits until at least Friday, Jan. 5, A Place of Warmth in Delaware is hopeful it will be able to open its doors to homeless men in need of a warm place to sleep.
For the past three winter seasons, A Place of Warmth — located in the basement of the Zion United Church of Christ at 51 W. Central Ave. — has provided a warming center for men only from 8 p.m to 8 a.m. on evenings when temperatures are forecasted to drop to 20 degrees or colder.
As of Friday afternoon, A Place of Warmth has been open six nights this winter with no homeless men having stayed overnight, said Mike Newcomb, site coordinator and Zion UCC member.
To his chagrin, however, due to a shortage of available special-duty law enforcement officers, the warming center has been forced to keep its doors shut in recent days, despite evening temperatures dipping below 20 degrees.
“There have been six nights we have not been able to open because we couldn’t get a cop for all night,” Newcomb said. “In the coldest weather, it’s really about saving lives. This outreach protects people from freezing to death, which is what concerns us all about not being open.”
According to the guidelines established by the local coalition of community organizations, local businesses, and government bodies that came together in 2015 to make the warming center a reality, in addition to A Place of Warmth needing at least one volunteer on site in order to open on a given night, an off-duty law enforcement officer must also be in attendance from 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. to make sure peace is kept, Newcomb said.
In the past, he added, some guests have been disruptive and one was caught using drugs in the bathroom.
“Volunteers aren’t trained to deal with stuff like that,” Newcomb said. “It’s not an easy thing unless you are prepared. That’s why it’s so crucial to have trained law enforcement officers present. We have to protect our volunteers as well as our guests.”
When it comes to filling the off-duty officer position on a given night, A Place of Warmth works closely with the Delaware Police Department before reaching out to the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office if no police officers are available.
“We are wondering if there isn’t a way to broaden the pool, but that’s a topic for discussion next week with the chief (Bruce Pijanowski),” Newcomb said. “I think there might be some ideas they have for improving the situation.”
When A Place of Warmth is able to open its doors, homeless men are not only provided a warm place to sleep, but they are also fed, given a bed roll they can take with them, and given a health kit containing various items donated by the community.
“The community has been pretty generous as this is a communitywide effort, not just a Zion thing,” Newcomb said. “We provide the space, utilities, and coordination. We are proud to be part of it.”
Factors keeping the doors shut
Newcomb said the previous two holiday seasons in which A Place of Warmth has operated, temperatures have been above 20 degrees, and the closures this year could very well be a result of officers and deputies being needed elsewhere during the holidays, whether it be for their job or to spend time with family.
Delaware Police Capt. Adam Moore confirmed to The Gazette that the holidays have in fact been the primary cause for the warming center being unable to secure the services of an off-duty officer.
He said when it comes to filling requests for off-duty officers, it comes down to whether or not there are enough available to meet the demand, and unfortunately during the holidays, demand is higher and officers typically spend more of their days off with family.
“It really comes down to there are only so many hours in the day and so many officers to go around,” Moore said. “Lately, there has been a lot of requests for special-duty officers due to recent events in the national news, and it’s hard to fill all those requests.
“The demand for special-duty officers is affecting not just our department, but other agencies as well,” he added.
For instance, Moore said to his knowledge, between the Delaware Police Department and Delaware County Sheriff’s Office, “16 churches requested armed officers” to provide security for their Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day services.
“It just reached a point where we had more demand than we had supply,” he said. “We will do our very best to work through the issues (concerning off-duty officer coverage at A Place of Warmth).”
Cold temperatures to remain
AccuWeather is calling for the frigid temperatures to continue blanketing the area through next week.
Saturday’s forecast calls for morning snow showers with a high temperature of 19 degrees and a low of 5 degrees.
As for the extended forecast, temperatures are expected to continue on a downward spiral with the following expected highs and lows: Sunday (15 degrees/minus 3 degrees), Monday (12 degrees/minus 3 degrees), Tuesday (10 degrees/5 degrees), Wednesday (17 degrees/1 degree), Thursday (13 degrees/6 degrees), and Friday (17 degrees/4 degrees).
Contact Joshua Keeran at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @KeeranGazette.