St. Paul’s warming center reports a successful season

Despite an appeal made to the Visalia Planning Commission to stop St. Paul’s Warming Center from opening, the center operated for 65 days and sheltered hundreds of homeless for the 2018/2019 winter.

In January of this year the city council voted to donate $10,000 to the warming center. The center also received a $35,000 grant from the Kings Tulare Homeless Alliance. The donations were primarily used to pay for professional security, janitor services, supplies and utilities. The Reverend Suzi Ward volunteered her time to operate the warming center and was aided by other church and community volunteers to run the center each night.

At the Visalia City Council May 6 work Session Ward presented the center’s accomplishments.

The Warming Center opened the day after Christmas and closed February 28. The center had an average of 58 guests in December and January, and according to Ward, the rainy cold weather in February brought in an average of 105 individuals.

Ward said that even though the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) only allowed for 100, there were 21 nights where the center housed over 100 people, and on February 11 there were 125, Ward got emotional during her presentation when she explained to the council that she didn’t have the heart to turn anyone away.

In the first year of operation, in 2018, the center was open from January 14 to March 17 and the average occupancy for February and March was 69.

St. Paul’s made a few changes the second time around at the request of neighbors and to better serve the homeless community. A security guard was hired 14 hours a day to ensure there was no loitering before or after the center was open. This was the shelter’s biggest expense.

Also, the restriction of only being open when the temperature fell under 40 degrees was removed. The restriction was removed in order to reduce confusion among the homeless as to whether or not the center would be open and to accommodate the homeless when it was raining.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church ran a low-barrier shelter. Ward explained that being low-barrier means people are accepted as they are and all are provided a safe, warm place when they have no other option.

“While some shelters may require a homeless individual to be sober or pass a drug test, this center does not. An individual experiencing homelessness can show up with a pet in tow and under the influence and they will find a warm place to stay. We simply ask them to be respectful of others,” Ward said.

Only three people were kicked out of the shelter during the three months because of unacceptable behavior.

The Center opened at 9pm and clients were allowed to line up at the door at 8:30. After signing-in they received a numbered wristband corresponding to their belongings that were kept in an adjoining room.

New this year was the acquisition of mats and blankets. When individuals checked-in, they were given a mat and 2 blankets and found a spot on the floor. As a Warming Center and not a shelter, they were not authorized to provide beds or cots.

Ward said that what the clients appreciated more than anything else was that they had a safe, warm space to stay.

Also new this year was that the Warming Center allowed individuals to bring their dogs. Each dog had their own kennel and individuals usually slept next to their animal’s kennel. Ward said that more noise emanated from the humans sleeping than any of the animals.

The Warming Center’s CUP did not include providing meals but clients were offered warm drinks and snacks. Occasionally, especially on rainy nights, individuals were given a cup of noodles. Occasionally outside volunteers brought meals to share or pizza for everyone.

Ward reported that two-thirds of their clients came every night. Unlike at traditional shelters, St. Paul’s did not separate families or couples. People such as mothers and her adult son, married couples or gay couples were allowed to stay together, and once word got out, couples and families often returned.

St. Paul’s intends to run the shelter for the 2019/2020 winter if it receives a $50,000 grant from the Homeless Emergency Aid Program. Ward said they should know by the end of May.

Even if it receives the grant, the Warming Center most likely will not be at St. Paul’s next winter. Ward said that neither the congregation nor the neighbors want it in the church. A new location most likely will not be in north Visalia, according to Ward, and depends on the grant coming through.

After Ward presented her report each council member commended her dedication to the homeless and supported her in her efforts to provide a warming shelter in the future.

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