On Tuesday, January 10, over 40 individuals from Sturgis and surrounding communities gathered at the St. Joseph Community Co-Op to address plans for an Emergency Weather Shelter. It was standing-room-only in the basement banquet hall of the Co-Op, as business leaders and various advocates for the unhoused met to brainstorm future actions.
Krysti Boughton, director of the Co-Op, arranged this meeting after being inspired to open the basement level of the Co-Op to offer assistance to those without shelter during the most recent extreme weather event. For 90 minutes she spoke to advocates and leaders in the community, prepared with an extensive agenda outlining numerous issues needing support. Joined by members of St. John’s Episcopal Church, representatives from both Community Mental Health and the United Way, and members of the Sturgis Business Development Team, Boughton made an urgent call for action due to the potential of another extreme weather event in only two weeks.
The first course of action was to define the weather shelter, and determine what criteria would need to be met in order for its activation.
“The Emergency Weather Shelter will not be a homeless shelter that runs from October through March,” Boughton said. “We can’t do that because we don’t have the staffing capacity, and we can’t get our building licensed to be a regular shelter like that. So, we need to keep in mind that this meeting is only for extreme weather events.”
Ultimately, when exactly the shelter opens will be dependent on the staffing available, and when the weather criteria has been met. By the end of the meeting an agreement to match the Emergency Weather Shelter threshold to that used by the Sturgis Fire and Police Department was made, and criteria for activation was set for -15 degrees ambient and -25 degrees windchill.
Staffing the shelter with individuals who are trained and capable of assisting those sheltering is also crucial. Boughton expects a minimum of three volunteers (mandatory male and female) per five- to eight-hour shift. These volunteers must be awake at all times, and able to recognize when they may need to call the police. Training will include de-escalation, trauma-informed care, CPR/basic first aid, and how to use Narcan in the event of an overdose. The Co-Op will be hosting a Narcan-training course on Wednesday, January 18 at 4 p.m., administered by Mark Olsen (Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse of St. Joseph County).
Boughton plans to use Google Shared Documents with registered volunteers to be shared in real time as soon as the potential for an extreme weather event arises. “We need volunteers that are trained and able to step up to the plate,” she said, adding that if they do not have sufficient volunteers for a shift that she will have to ask those seeking warmth to leave.
The next hurdles for the Co-Op to conquer are operational requirements. Fire marshall requirements state that the shelter must have an egress if people are sleeping there overnight, and there is no fire watch. The Co-Op basement does not currently have an egress window, and Boughton raised the question of whether they would be permitted to open if they utilized a fire watch. Additionally, there is currently no telephone access in the basement so Boughton plans to either provide a cell phone for those on shift or hardwire a phone line that might only operate for calling 911.
The basic guidelines for the Extreme Weather Shelter itself were discussed at length, as well. There will be a rule for all those staying that they will be given a change of clothes (pajamas) upon arriving, and then their clothes will be washed and their belongings stored in a separate area without access. Boughton said she hopes this will eliminate anyone having weapons, cigarettes, or anything else that would be prohibited. She also told those gathered that she will not turn any individual away if they have a pet. “They’re emotional support animals, Sometimes people have animals because that’s the only connection they have when they don’t have a house. We don’t want to refuse service to them.”
While on the topic of tolerance, Boughton said this would be a low-barrier shelter, meaning staff will not turn any individual away based on current drug use, sexuality, or gender identity. “Some of the faith-based organizations will not provide shelter if you are part of the LGBTQ community. We want to prevent that.”
One of the last items on the agenda was the issue of communication, and how to spread the word about the shelter to participants. One suggestion was made to potentially make small, wallet-size flyers for easy distribution that would contain all the information needed on where to seek warmth. Another advocate in the audience mentioned making trips to known-encampments and getting communication out in that way, or even offering rides. Boughton acknowledged the efforts of the Sturgis Police Department in past weather events, and how they have helped keep the unhoused informed of safe havens. An official Facebook page has also been created, “Extreme Weather Overnight Warming Center,” and it will be used to advertise information about all upcoming weather events that would activate the opening of the center.
The meeting came to a close with volunteer sign-up sheets passed around, and the promise of future meetings held as soon as possible. With the potential of brutal Michigan weather on the horizon, the clock is ticking to get the Emergency Weather Center operational. Boughton ended the meeting by leading a tour of the Co-Op basement, and the cots and equipment she has already procured were on display.
At the time this article was published, a follow-up meeting has not yet been scheduled, but Boughton urges all those passionate about this project get involved as volunteers and stay tuned for updates. “We need to rely on each other because it takes a village.”
Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice.