City's warming shelter opens

John Batley, security guard with Elite Protection, does a final scan of the male's sleeping room in the city's new warming shelter before check-in. The warming shelter's grand opening was Friday, and check-in was from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. with a capacity of 50 individuals. On the side of the room were bed mats and blankets. (Katie Standlee / The Transcript)

Shielding eight homeless individuals from the cold, the city's warming shelter opened its doors for the first time Friday night.

Four females and four males took shelter in the former library Friday on Webster Avenue. Michelle Evans, the city's homeless program coordinator, said the opening night went amazingly well and everyone was very grateful to have somewhere to go, so she anticipates check-in numbers will grow.

"It's going to be a learning curve this weekend, it certainly will, but I think for the most part it's going to be on the security team with their expertise and knowing how to handle a sheltering situation and our Continuum of Care partners getting that intake process," Evans said. "It's just going to be saving lives, but hopefully getting them into a housing plan and giving them some permanent structure."

The shelter opens up on the main entrance of the former library and check-in is right up front. The female's sleeping room is in one of the small rooms up front, as is the property room for bags. The Lowry room is the males' sleeping room.

There are 70 sleeping mats and coupling blankets available, which Evans said are cleaned daily. There are also 10 cots available in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A common area is between the sleeping rooms, and Habitat for Humanity donated a shelf with cubbies to hold all donated supplies for those seeking shelter.

There were no concerns or incidents Friday, Evans said, and security team Elite Protection provided pointers throughout the night. Elite Protection has trained professionals that have done security of this nature in Oklahoma City, Evans said, and they know this population and how to handle intake.

Originally individuals were going to be allowed one backpack in the sleeping rooms, said Rayna Cumbie, the city's homeless committee Continuum of Care co-chair. However, after consulting with security staff they determined a book/cellphone would be safest and backpacks will be locked in the property room, she said.

Saturday morning Evans, some of the Continuum of Care staff and cleaning crew were preparing for day two and making adjustments.

Blackout materials will be going up in the females room since it faces a main street, and has a landscape light outside the window. Evans said the check-in area has also moved farther back so bags and security scans happen first.

Once individuals check-in they sign waivers, release of information and the rules and policies form. Evans said the trained Continuum of Care staff will now complete an assessment to evaluate needs.

"Our goal in Continuum of Care and as a community is to connect people to permanent housing options at the end of the day," Cumbie said. "Those individuals that are going to come in regularly, we want to make sure that we are getting them service connected."

The warming shelter was the first item of focus for the city's committee to address homelessness when it banded together a month ago. A warming shelter is similar to a homeless shelter, but offers temporary refuge for those trying to stay out of the cold weather.

The committee will continue discussions while troubleshooting with the warming shelter at 10 a.m. every Tuesday in city hall. It will also begin discussions for a permanent day shelter and long-term resources for the city's homeless population.

Angela Cantrell, 42, has been homeless for almost a year and was seeking shelter Friday night. She said it's nice to have somewhere else to go.

The shelter remaining open throughout the winter is awesome, Cantrell said, because it gets people off the streets.

A city-run permanent day shelter would be great, she said, because on the weekends it would provide the homeless community with another place to go.

The shelter's capacity is 50 and Evans said it will remain open seven days a week for 14 weeks, including holidays. Check-in is from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., and checkout is 7 a.m. the following day.

"They started coming to the door around 6:30 p.m. asking when we would open," Jessica Moore, the city's homeless committee Continuum of Care chair, said Friday night. "I'm glad that the word has spread, and I'm excited that we will be able to help some people tonight that haven't had a place to shelter in a while."

Several community churches, agencies, individuals and partners like Norman Regional Health Systems donated supplies including toiletries, personal-hygiene products, hats, gloves and scarves. The donated computers and scanners were also set up prior to check-in by the city's IT team.

The committee is still accepting donations, Evans said, but they cannot take used clothes or items. The current need is toiletries, hats, gloves, scarves and items of that nature.

Volunteering needs have reached capacity for the temporary shelter, Evans said, and they already have extra staff on hand for Christmas Eve and Christmas. The plan is to make those holiday evenings special and bring in some decorations, she said.

"Norman has a homeless problem and it's a community problem and it needs a community response," said Lisa Krieg, committee member and the city's grant manager. "And I think of the response we have had not just from the service providers, but by people, just the outpouring of assistance has been amazing."

On Nov. 14, Evans said the most current numbers for unsheltered individuals that have been identified throughout Norman is 347 and there are an additional 61 at-risk individuals. These numbers represent the people who have been on their radar and have been identified since January, Evans said, but she noted these numbers are difficult to get exact since people move frequently throughout the city.

Evans said this homeless population number has not been updated, because all hands have been on deck for the warming shelter's opening.

The warming shelter's budget was just under $38,000 and funds came from the police department, Evans said. The CDBG program is covering the case management costs, she said.

Sandy Duncan, Mission Norman office manager, and Dave Karr, Mission Norman director, were assisting with Friday's opening because Mission Norman is a city of Norman partner. Duncan said the shelter is fantastic, and Karr said it's badly needed.

There's still a campaign for coats, blankets, gloves and other warming supplies at Mission Norman that is running at least through the winter, Duncan said. Residents can bring new or used items to Mission Norman, which is a local food pantry, at 2525 E. Lindsey and they will get them to those in need, she said.

"We feel like we all have to work together to work on this, because it's not a problem its a challenge," Karr said. "We are hoping the city puts their arms around this and accepts it and supports it. We feel it's really needed in the city."

Katie Standlee366-3544Follow me @katiestandleekstandlee@normantranscript.com

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