Natasha Khazzam, Contributing Photographer

The city’s three winter warming centers — Upon this Rock, Varick Memorial and the 180 Center — have hit full capacity nearly every night since beginning their seasonal operations on Dec. 1. These constraints became increasingly prevalent after last Tuesday’s winter storm, which led the warming centers to surpass capacity limits in an effort to accommodate guests.

Warming centers typically provide unhoused people with food and a place to spend the night during winter months, operating from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Tuesday’s extreme conditions prompted the city’s warming centers to adopt severe cold-weather protocols, during which they operated 24 hours a day instead of the usual 12. Tuesday’s weather also led several warming centers to accommodate people beyond capacity. This called into question the centers’ ability to accommodate everybody looking for shelter — a concern which prompted expansion and reform efforts that have been ongoing throughout the winter.

Warming centers respond to decreased temperatures

According to Program Manager Shellina Toure, Varick Memorial increased its capacity from 39 to 42 people in response to the severe cold weather. Upon this Rock underwent a similar response, opening its doors to over 60 people in response to the extreme conditions on Tuesday. 

Toure noted that although the warming centers always house more people in response to severe cold weather, there is often simply not enough space to accommodate everybody who stops by. However, the warming centers’ need to expand beyond capacity is not limited to extreme weather conditions. 

Delana Lawrence, the assistant director at Upon this Rock, explained that the center changed its location to 130 Orchard St. in order to accommodate more people than in previous winters, as its former Grand Avenue location only accommodated 30 people. When the new location opened on Dec. 1, it was equipped to accommodate 47 people, but that number has since expanded to 60 in response to increased demand.

“Cold or warm, we still hit our capacity every night,” Lawrence said. 

She added that the warming center plays an important role in addressing needs beyond just relief from cold weather. In addition to distributing hot meals every night, it serves as a “safe environment” that provides people with a peaceful night’s rest.

Toure explained how the need to continuously stay open remains a reality, especially in response to an increase in the number of people looking to the warming centers for food and shelter.

“We’ve definitely been seeing new people … people move on, they get housed or they go into shelter … they leave the warming center,” she said. “But then you see another wave of new people come through [the warming centers].” 

Ongoing efforts seek to address capacity constraints

Several of the city’s centers have engaged in private efforts to expand services. Toure stated that Varick has recently collaborated with nonprofits Bridges of Hope and fREshSTARTs to provide dinner at the center each night.

Teddy Natter, the supervisor at the 180 Center, explained that the Center is undergoing a second phase of expansion funded by private donations, rather than by the city. The construction entails 17 permanent beds, showers, laundry services and a commercial kitchen.

Natter explained that this addition will serve as “somewhere for people that aren’t looking to just crash — they’re looking to actually utilize the stepping stones to get employed and get housing, and get out of the situation that they’re in.” 

According to Natter, this construction project is roughly three-fourths of the way done, and will likely be finished at some point this year.

Community members highlight potential improvements for warming centers

Prior to Tuesday’s snowstorm, homelessness activist Roosevelt Watkins — who is homeless — raised several complaints regarding the city’s warming centers with The Unhoused Activists’ Community Team, or U-ACT, a New Haven homelessness advocacy group that was established in June 2022.

Watkin’s advocacy led U-ACT to file six demands with the city of New Haven, which involve extending warming center hours to 10 a.m. each day, providing guests with “comfortable places” to sleep, guaranteeing all guests a warm dinner, informing guests on how to file grievances if a center fails to follow the city’s policies, permitting transgender guests to use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity and adding at least 50 spots at warming centers for the winter of 2024-25.

The first demand stems from Watkins’ main complaint: After the warming centers close at 7 a.m., people typically seek shelter in the city’s public libraries, which do not open until 10 a.m.  — leaving many people without shelter for a three-hour period.

According to Bromage, U-ACT’s second demand addresses a city policy that prohibits warming centers from providing guests with cots. Instead, the centers provide guests with chairs, blankets or yoga mats to sleep on.

“If our goal is to not have people freeze to death, that’s not a sufficient way to acknowledge the humanity of someone,” Bromage said. “We need to aim for a much higher standard of dignity and acknowledgement of people’s human rights.” 

Watkins pointed out that this city policy is meant to maximize warming centers’ capacities — adding cots to centers would limit the amount of guests they could accept.

According to Bromage, these sleeping conditions are especially harmful for elderly unhoused people, who make up an increasing percentage of the national unhoused population. Recent studies show that about 50 percent of unhoused single adults are over the age of 50. 

U-ACT hopes warming centers will both increase their capacity and provide guests with cots so that the centers do not “take away [spots] to accommodate for laying down,” according to Bromage.

However, since this demand has not been met, Watkins said that warming centers should prioritize meeting their current capacities over supplying cots to guests.

“I would rather be uncomfortable than [have people] out in the cold,” he said.

Bromage explained that some of the city’s warming centers pay for warm meals out of pocket or receive food through donations, rather than from city funding. This inspired U-ACT’s third demand to provide all of the center’s guests with a warm dinner. 

U-ACT’s fifth demand was prompted by Upon this Rock lacking accommodations for transgender guests who hope to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, according to Bromage. 

“It’s both a lack of acknowledgement of the legal requirements to make bathrooms available and lack of training for warming center staff,” Bromage wrote to the News.

Bromage and Watkins emphasized that this issue largely affects transgender women, since cisgender female guests who have experienced male violence often feel uncomfortable sharing the bathroom with transgender women. They mentioned potential solutions, such as implementing gender neutral bathrooms and improving training for Upon this Rock’s staff members.

Brother Barry, one of the deacons at Upon This Rock Ministries who did not provide his last name, denied U-ACT’s allegations.

“We don’t do that. We treat everybody equally,” he said. “We cater to all people.”

The other two shelters have not experienced this issue: Watkins said that Varick’s staff has accommodated transgender guests, while Bromage added that 180 Center has single-occupancy bathrooms. 

U-ACT shared its demands at a Feb. 9 City Hall meeting, which was also attended by representatives of the city’s warming centers and the United Way of Connecticut, another nonprofit organization. 

The warming centers were most receptive to the first demand, especially since 180 Center already provides religious programming during the day, according to Bromage. However, like Watkins, the centers’ representatives noted that their limited capacity makes it difficult to address the second demand.

Bromage told the News that U-ACT plans to continue advocating for its demands to be met.

“It will certainly be a lot of pushing on getting funding… to get more people [in the centers], but in a way where they’re laying down [and] they’re not putting their health at risk every night,” he said.

Varick Memorial AME Zion Church is located at 242 Dixwell Ave.

Correction, Feb. 27: This article has been updated with the correct spelling of Shellina Toure’s last name and with a clarification of U-ACT’s third demand.

Maia Nehme covers housing and homelessness and Latine communities for the News. Originally from Washington, D.C., she is a first-year in Benjamin Franklin College majoring in history.
Natasha Khazzam covers housing and homelessness for city desk. She previously covered climate and the environment. Originally from Great Neck, New York, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in history and English.