Story and photos by Diti Kohli
Age 54, diabetic, and newly homeless, Rosa spent her first night in the Malden Warming Center on a frigid February evening. In late January, she lost her job as a live-in evening manager of a disabled veterans care facility that gave her only two weeks to vacate her home.
Rosa does not receive unemployment benefits from her non-profit ex-employer. She survives off food stamps and has only procured enough insulin to last another month. Without the center, she would be spending her nights on the street.
“I’ve always said if people are homeless, there has to be a reason they’re there,” said Rosa. “This is my reason.”
According to a report from the Department of Housing and Development, Rosa is among the estimated 20,000 homeless individuals in Massachusetts. Citizens and officials in Malden, alarmed at the number of homeless in the city, have worked together to open a warming center, a place where the homeless can find respite from the winter.
The center opened for the winter on Jan. 1 within the First Church of the Nazarene in its fellowship center, Parry Hall. Gerald Whetstone, church pastor and director of the warming center, said the facility will stay open for the rest of February.
Supervised by volunteers from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. every weekday night, the center provides guests with a safe place to stay and a warm soup meal. Closely packed chairs and folding table of munchies line the hall, and a sorted rack of clothes and shoes that are available to guests at no cost sits near the entrance.
Occupancy rose from three on its first night to 27 earlier this month. But the facility and its volunteers are ready and willing to accommodate nearly a hundred more guests since the hall can house up to 120 individuals.
Unlike a shelter which provides beds and bedding for its guests, warming centers like the one in Malden are not allowed to offer sleeping accommodations. Guests at warming centers may leave when they please, whereas in many shelters, individuals are kept on lockdown for the night.
The Malden Warming Center identifies as a non-search facility, meaning volunteers use a metal-detecting wand to comb for weapons but do not sift through guests’ belongings.
“They know that we’re legit. We’re not taking all kinds of information. We don’t do search and seizures…those kind of things,” said Pastor Whetstone.
For safety purposes, guests are required to sign in and out and place their larger belongings into bags that are put away during their stay. If a guest chooses to leave before the center closes at 6 a.m., they cannot return for the night.
Situated within one block of three MBTA bus stops, the First Church is a convenient location for the homeless. But advocates for the center know awareness is not enough to increase the center’s usage––transportation is crucial.
Paul Hammersley, an addiction recovery resource specialist who works for the city, drives Malden’s Human Services Van around the city for the first two hours the center is open every day. With another volunteer in tow, Hammersley searches every public transportation station, ATM bank, street corner, and shop in Malden. The van brings in an average of eight individuals per night from the cold.
Community volunteers choose from four jobs––transportation ride-along, kitchen help, donation sorter, or shift worker––when electing to aid the center’s efforts.
Whetstone said volunteers “come from all walks of life” and self-select which times and jobs to pursue in a spreadsheet that volunteer coordinator and UMass Boston student, Nicole Baltazar, manages. As long as the center’s occupancy is under 45, only two shift workers are needed to oversee the shelter for each five hour shift.
In addition to overseeing guests’ requests, food distribution, and medical emergencies, shift workers are responsible for getting acquainted with the center’s guests.
Karen Buck, a Malden resident and self-employed massage therapist, said she usually takes the later shift on Wednesday nights as a personal challenge.
“It keeps me on top of my game a little bit. It’s working with folks that were invisible to me before,” said Buck. “I may have recognized some of their faces. But they didn’t have a name, and now they have a name.”
Volunteers are trained in informal basic first aid and the administration of Narcan, a blanket prescription opioid overdose reversal drug, in the event a guest experiences an overdose. The Narcan sits in an unlocked cabinet near the entrance for easy access during emergencies. Though the center opened only weeks ago, one volunteer, who happened to be a registered nurse, has already used Narcan on a guest.
First Lutheran Church pastor and involved volunteer Emily Hamilton said being trained to administer Narcan can be an empowering experience for community members.“I think it’s a really powerful thing for folks. It kind of demystifies the whole experience,” said Hamilton. “Really, it’s just a nasal spray. It’s something you can do with almost no training at all.”
The idea of a warming center emerged about two years ago, when Malden Mayor Gary Christenson floated the concept at his weekly interfaith roundtables with cultural and religious leaders. Pastor Whetstone spearheaded the center’s creation when he became pastor of First Nazarene last year. The opening culminated quickly after effort’s first formal informational meeting in October 2018.
Initial funding for the center originated from a grant from the Barrett Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to ending the cycle of homelessness. The foundation awarded the warming center $8,000 to cover start-up costs in December following Whetstone’s application. Now donations fuel all of the center’s meals and costs.
Though volunteers do not force guests to pursue reform and recovery programs, they can connect guests to local resources. Hammersley works closely with Malden Overcoming Addiction, which successfully links individuals with rehabilitation facilities, recovery coaches, and halfway-houses.
Local police departments are also aiding the warming center’s efforts. Officers watch the church and its surroundings from a distance and willingly drive the homeless to the center if asked.
Depending on volunteer availability, the community hopes to keep the center open through the cold month of March. Regardless, Pastor Whetstone and community members are making plans to reopen the warming center again next winter, but making it a year-long endeavor is currently out of the question.
“This is a new venture. But as I keep reminding people that this new venture is to help us give names and faces, to humanize a segment of society that’s often just categorized,” said Whetstone. “By doing that, we can start making in-roads and helping them get the resources they need.”
Contact Pastor Whetstone at firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved with the Warming Center.
Diti Kohli is a journalism major at Emerson College, currently interning at MATV, Malden’s Media Center.