AUGUSTA — The Augusta Community Warming Center is open for the season. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, it is focusing on and dedicating its space to homeless people.
Providing a safe place for the homeless to spend the day was the center’s original mission. In recent years, however, the center’s use has grown to include people who were not homeless, but would come for the day to socialize with others.
With state restrictions on gathering due to COVID-19, the warming center, which at times might be able to accommodate only six people at once, is prioritizing the homeless.
That includes those staying at shelters or those who do not have heat or need a place to meet with caseworkers or for peer support.
“We’re going back to the bare bones of the original intent of the warming center, which originally was meant to save lives,” said Sarah Miller, administrative director of Bridging The Gap, which is a program of the Emmanuel Lutheran Episcopal Church and oversees the warming center. “This year, more than any other year, we just need to prioritize the floor space.
“If the warming center is at capacity and people are in there just socializing, but have a safe, warm place to be, someone who is homeless doesn’t have a safe, warm place to be. We’d need to ask (those who are not homeless) to give up their space.”
The warming center and other Bridging the Gap services are located at the church at 209 Eastern Ave. in Augusta.
Warming center officials have worked with a public health nurse to set up the facility — about 700 square feet — with Plexiglass partitions and other measures to provide separation between those using it.
If six individuals use the warming center at the same time, they might be the maximum the facility can safely accommodate. If families or others who regularly spend time together come in, Miller said they can be together, allowing more than six people to be at the center at the same time.
The space can be reconfigured to improve social distancing, according to Miller. Individuals who are not part of the same family or “bubble,” meaning they already spend time together, are asked to remain at least 6 feet apart. That means no more cribbage games, a popular pastime at the the center, except for families or others who come in together.
Miller said all who enter the center must wear a protective mask. They also will have their temperature taken and be asked a series of questions about their health and contacts before they are allowed in.
Coffee and snacks are available to users of the center. Attendees may take their masks off to eat.
Other changes meant to accommodate use during the pandemic include two new air cleaners, which the center bought with funds from the Kennebec Valley United Way’s COVID emergency fund.
The warming center opened for the season Nov. 30. Its hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Monday through Friday.
So far this season, attendance at the center has been down, according to Miller, who attributed the decrease to the nearby Bread of Life homeless shelter. In years past, Bread of Life has not allowed overnight tenants to remain there during the day, but is now doing so.
Bridging the Gap has also made changes to its other services: Addie’s Attic Clothing Bank, Everyday Essentials Hygiene Pantry and Winter Coats and Boots.
Users of those services are no longer allowed inside. Only users of the warming center may go into Bridging the Gap due to the pandemic.
Since the pandemic became a concern in Maine, the essentials pantry has been a curbside service and open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. People come to Bridging the Gap, where a worker will take their order, fill it and return with their items.
Winter coats, boots and gloves may also be obtained the same way, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Other clothing items through Addie’s Attic Clothing Bank, however, are now available only on an emergency basis. Miller said situations that qualify include being homeless, recently released from incarceration, people who had to relocate due to a domestic violence or other urgent needs, people who have lost housing to fires and people living in transitional housing.
Bridging the Gap still serves a role connecting people in need to area resources, such as counseling, housing or substance abuse and mental health help. Santa Havener, director of operations, volunteering and resource connection, can be reached at 207-530-0184.
Donors wishing to drop off items for the organization may bring personal hygiene items, without an appointment, between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Monday through Friday.
Donors with clothing are asked to call the manager at Addie’s Attic at 207-458-7088 to discuss the items they wish to contribute.