By Adam Swift
Mayor Brian Arrigo addressed concerns about the planned use of the senior center as an overnight warming center this winter at Monday night’s City Council meeting.
Citing concerns from a number of local senior citizens, councillors Gerry Viconti and Dan Rizzo filed a motion asking the mayor and the health department about the warming center.
Arrigo noted that last January, the council approved a motion requesting that he establish a designated warming center in the city. He added that the senior center was also designated as the city’s emergency shelter space about a decade ago, and the city received money to improve and upgrade the facility for that use.
“Ultimately, what we are doing is following through on the will of the council that was brought to us last year,” said Arrigo. “We’ve used the senior center as a warming station and as a cooling station, but we haven’t done it very well. To be honest, when we have done it, it has been poorly planned in the past and we scrambled to put it together.”
Working with emergency services and public health, Arrigo said the city worked on a plan to improve those services.
“The warming center is not a shelter,” said Arrigo. “There are no beds, this is simply a space to stay warm, as it has been for the last decade or so.”
The mayor said the city is working with the organization Housing Families, which will help provide oversight and run the warming center.
“The warming center will be run from Jan. 14 to March 31,” said Arrigo. Plans now call for the center to be open on the second floor of the senior center seven days per week from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., with a maximum of 15 people using the shelter at any one time. Arrigo said there will be extensive daily deep cleaning of the area every morning, and that there will be no access to the first floor.
“Several people who attend (the Council on Aging) on a regular basis were under the impression this was going to be a homeless shelter with people living there,” said Rizzo.
He said there is a need in the center for a warming shelter, adding the senior center has been used for that purpose in the past.
“I’m sure it is still unnerving for people who go there because it has never been talked about openly before,” said Rizzo.
Visconti said he also thought it was a good idea to address the issue of a warming center, but like Rizzo, he said he didn’t get much notice about the proposed changes beforehand.
“I think it is a noble goal, and I feel a little better hearing Homeless Families is involved, because I’ve had some experience with them over the years,” said Councillor-at-Large Anthony Zambuto. Like Rizzo and Visconti, Zambuto said he would have liked to have had more of a heads up about the plan.
In the past, Arrigo said the warming shelters were only open if there was a storm or particularly cold temperatures forecast, while the new plan calls for a consistent opening through the winter months.
Still, several local seniors said they were still worried about the plan and the lack of communication from the city.
“We’re not against the homeless, we just don’t believe the venue is the elderly center,” said Frank Schettino.
Schettino also asked what happened to people in the shelter when 7 a.m. hits and the temperature is still extremely cold.
“What if it’s five degrees? We don’t want to put them out there again,” he said.
Arrigo and Public Health Director Lauren Buck also noted that the warming shelter is a pilot program, and can be changed or adjusted if there are aspects of it that don’t work out. Buck also noted that the warming center is not exclusively for homeless people, but could be used by residents who are housed, but have an issue where they do not have heat.
“We can put a warming center wherever we want, this is our city,” said Rizzo, noting the city could get an emergency generator at another location if that was what was needed to run a warming shelter. “I don’t understand why we are so reluctant to look at another location.”
Visconti asked Buck and Arrigo if there were any contingency plans to have the warming center at a different location.
“The concerns are not going to go away after this meeting, and if they are not comfortable a week down the line, then they are going to be uncomfortable the entire stay of this,” said Visconti.
Buck said the city has reached out to multiple faith-based organizations about housing the program, but did not receive any organizations or congregations willing to take it on.
Rizzo offered up a motion Monday asking that the mayor review the feasibility of an alternative location for the warming center. That motion was approved by a 9-2 vote by the council.