Last month the City opened a warming center at the Armory to address the growing problem of our unhoused neighbors needing a warm place to spend the night during our cold New England winter. Operated by a private contractor, Housing Families, the warming center is open nightly from 6:45 PM to offer overnight warmth and sleeping accommodations to those most in need.
First, the good: I'm very grateful to the Mayor and her administration for hearing the calls from the City Council and constituents for a dedicated space for this and responding. This is a big step forward from last winter, when there were pop-up warming centers on a few of the coldest nights in the winter, and those who wanted to take advantage of this service had to be transported there by law enforcement. It's being done at considerable cost to the City, and given local, regional, and national trends in homelessness, I expect these expenses will be part of our operating fund going forward. That's just the reality of the situation until this is getting completely handled at the state level, where it really belongs.
I do wish this warming center had been open earlier than January 8. I understand it's been all hands on deck for the Administration and City staff with the Winter Hill Community Innovation School building emergency closure, relocation to the Edgerly, and new school construction process. But we knew it was going to get cold again this winter, so I'm disappointed we were 38 days -- and 15 sub-freezing nights -- into meteorological winter before the warming center opened. I really hope in future years our warming centers are ready to go and open on December 1, in recognition of the reality of our weather.
It is the selection of the Armory as the site of this warming center that has generated the most controversy. The mix of human services and an arts, cultural, and event space is a very suboptimal one. I've met with Center for Arts at the Armory staff and directors and heard their stories of the major challenges this warming center has created for them and Armory tenants. To be clear, the CAA folks have been incredibly compassionate in our conversations, and their biggest ask is for more resources from the City to deal with problems that have arisen -- particularly during the day -- as a result of the mixture of the two uses in the building.
While the City has been slower than I would like to address the very real concerns brought by the Armory's operator and tenants, I'm encouraged that a recent email outlined steps being taken to improve the situation there. In conjunction with the outside provider contracted to run the warming center, there is now a commitment to an increased security presence in the building.
In a perfect world, the City would've utilized vacant store fronts to create warming centers in East Somerville and Davis Square, where the largest groups of unhoused folks are located. Granted, this would've been costlier, but I feel the additional expense would've been justified. The warming center in the Armory simply isn't geographically convenient to either East Somerville or Davis, and I suspect the number of clients would be significantly higher were that the case.
I hope this winter's growth from pop-up warming centers on the coldest nights last winter to a dedicated nightly warming center continues in future winters. And I'm also hopeful that lessons are learned from this go-around and that the City gets it completely right next winter, beginning with doing a postmortem on this winter's warming center, followed by advance planning for next winter's warming center as early in the calendar year as possible.
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