City takes the lead in helping Charleston homeless amid cold and COVID

VIDEO: City takes the lead in helping Charleston homeless amid cold and COVID

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The City of Charleston has opened the door to its first city-run warming center in years.

The facility on Fishburne Street is equipped with 80 cots, each six feet apart, with separate areas for men, women and families. It also has the capacity to house several people in isolated areas in case they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

In addition to beds with pillows, blankets and sheets, volunteers are also providing guests with drinks, dinner and breakfast the next morning.

The facility is open from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. at which time guests will be required to leave so the warming center can return to its normal operation as a community center.

Chris Jardin is the community liaison and homelessness coordinator for the city. He is in charge of the warming center.

Jardin says they are filling a need normally met by local churches. Data collected last year from the churches showed an average of 55 people stayed at a warming center each day.

“There have been a lot of changes to our communities because of the pandemic. One of the impacts is the faith communities that historically take on this effort have not be able to do so,” Jardin said. “It was a well utilized service. Over 900 people used the service last year.”

Hibben United Methodist Church in Mount Pleasant puts together a warming center every year, but this year associate pastor Walter Strawther had to pull the plug on the service. He says there were a lot of factors that went into the decision.

“A major part of it is transportation. Most of the guests are from the downtown area and we would use the church bus to transport them. Obviously, with the coronavirus and trying to social distance we could only get four or five of them at a time,” Strawther said.

Having the warming center located on the peninsula at the Arthur W. Christopher Community Center helped shorten the distance guests would have to travel to make it to the facility. Strawther says having CARTA offer free rides to the center does not hurt either.

One of the big concerns for Strawther was the health of this volunteers.

“A lot of our volunteers are older so we were concerned about them getting the coronavirus and the worst happening,” Strawther said. “It just became increasingly clear that we would not be able to open our warming center the way we would have wanted.”

Instead, Strawther is acting as an advisor for the city’s facility and offering all of the volunteers willing to put themselves out there despite the risk, something the city is trying to mitigate as much as possible.

“We will be temperature checking and symptom checking at the door and each guest will be issued a mask,” Jardin said. “If folks have mild symptoms, they’ll be put in isolation. . . It’s not an ideal scenario but we are doing our best to keep everyone as safe as possible.”

In a normal year, they would be able to fit twice as many cots in a space this size, but it is not a normal year. Still, Jardin says they did not have to reinvent the wheel to keep people safe.

“A lot of this is modeled after all the work that was done on shelters for hurricanes which, thankfully, we didn’t have to use this year but a lot of the conversation about how to do concrete sheltering was had earlier in the year,” Jardin said.

Both Jardin and Strawther says despite the risk of the coronavirus, getting people off the streets amid near freezing temperatures needs to be a priority.

“These are human beings, plain and simple,” Strawther said. “Human decency says we should provide whenever we can.”

Next on the priority list for Jardin is getting the ability to do rapid covid tests. He says he is hoping to have that technology available next week.

The Fishburne Street center is the only warming center currently operating in the Charleston area. The Altersgate Winter Warming Center in North Charleston is expected to open in January.

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