Sturgis’ emergency weather shelter for unhoused could provide blueprint for Three Rivers

January is on record for being the coldest month of the year for Southwest Michigan with an average daily low of 19 degrees, and high of 31. These temperatures are brutal and unforgiving, especially in combination with powerful winds and ice. For most of the population in this area a dry and warm home is the solution to these issues. However, a large number of unhoused people in this community are being left out in the cold.

At the Three Rivers City Commission meeting on December 20, resident Debra Abel made a call to action regarding the need for more assistance for those without warm respite from the elements. As a volunteer with the Three Rivers Food Site and the Stone Cottage Free Store, she has become more aware, and was surprised at how many unhoused live in our community.

She listed the varying options currently available, such as the United Community Assistance Food Program food pantry, warming centers at the Presbyterian church twice a week, and the soup pot at the Episcopal church. The issue with all of this, she pointed out, is there are seven days in a week and these services aren’t available all weeklong. Abel suggested to the board the possibility of an using an empty building in town, and staffing it with volunteers to provide a more stable solution. 

Current list of cooling, warming centers
Commission on Aging, Three Rivers
(269) 279-8083
Persons of any age welcome
Three Rivers First Presbyterian Church
(269) 273-9571
December through February, Tuesday-Thursday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. (Bennett street entrance). Warm up inside with hot drink and muffin 
Keystone Place, Centreville
(269) 467-7078
Overnight shelter for unhoused or persons without heat
United Way 
(269) 467-4099
Contact for shelter list

Three Rivers City Commissioner Carolyn McNary, an advocate for the unhoused and volunteer for UCAP, is passionate about finding an answer to this growing issue. Like Abel, she hopes to see Three Rivers come together to form a plan for a structure in town that could be utilized at night as a safe haven for those without a home. At the time of this article, there are no plans in place for a meeting to discuss these ideas. 

Only 15 miles away, in the neighboring town of Sturgis, an extreme weather shelter is being established. The St Joseph Community Co-Op was opened in 2006 and Krysti Boughton was hired later that same year. Ever since, Boughton has been providing employment services as well as opportunities for independence for those struggling with disabilities, mental health issues, or housing.

On December 23, 2022 when the state was blanketed by a blizzard and fighting extremely low temperatures, Boughton saw a need for temporary shelter in the community, and opened the basement floor of the Co-Op for that purpose. 

“I have this building, not quite 10,000 feet, and we utilize almost all of it except the office. I can work remotely, and don’t need an office,” she said regarding her decision that night. The basement is handicap accessible with two unisex bathrooms, kitchen, and a washer and dryer, and Boughton said she could house 12-16 people in an emergency weather situation. She also has a separate room with a door that locks in the event of women and children needing a safe space during extreme weather. 

Pictured are the first set of what will be several cots set up in the basement of the St. Joseph Community Co-Op building located at 307 W. Chicago Rd., Suite 200 in Sturgis. (Photo provided)

The next steps in making this shelter a reality have come in the form of several meetings to plan its opening and functionality, with the next meeting happening at the Co-Op on January 10 from 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. at 307 W. Chicago Rd. in Sturgis. Discussion will include deciding what the threshold criteria will be for extreme weather, and how to raise awareness of the shelter’s existence, as those who need it most may not hear about it through normal media or social media channels. All those wishing to be advocates and get involved are urged attend next week’s meeting, which will include Sturgis Assistant City Manager Andrew Kuk, St. Joseph County United Way Executive Director Kelly Hostetler, a leader from St. John’s Episcopal Church, and other members of Sturgis’ business development team. 

For those wanting to donate items to the cause, Boughton asks for blankets, food, and other items people in need of shelter might find useful, and be able to take with them when they leave the shelter in the mornings. Boughton added that the Co-Op is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and monetary donations are desperately needed as well. Lastly, reliable and dependable volunteers would be an extraordinary asset for the shelter, Boughton says, and encourages those interested to reach out for further information.

Sturgis is setting an example of what a city is capable of when the community and city commission work together. Boughton’s vision of a safe and warm shelter will soon become a reality, and she said she’d be willing to share her blueprint with other towns. “We will all come over, identify business leaders, and do some brainstorming” she said regarding Three Rivers potentially opening an emergency shelter of its own. “This isn’t just a Sturgis thing, it’s a St. Joe County thing.”

Krysti Boughton can be reached at the St Joseph Community Co-Op at (269) 659-4525 or at 307 W. Chicago Rd., Suite 200-290 in Sturgis.

Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice.

CORRECTION: An older version of this story erroneously stated “The St Joseph Community Co-Op was opened by Krysti Boughton in 2006” due to a misunderstanding. The article has been corrected to reflect that the Co-Op was opened in 2006 and Boughton was hired later that same year.

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