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Warming center gets first tryout; some question zero-degree threshold

City Center West in West Duluth will be used as an emergency warming shelter on the coldest nights of the season. file / News Tribune

With a wind chill advisory in effect and a subzero low predicted, Duluth’s emergency warming center was open for the first time Thursday night.

But some say it shouldn’t have to be that cold for the homeless to be offered an overnight place of refuge.

“Opening the new warming center only when it hits zero is almost as unnecessarily cruel as not having a warming center at all,” wrote Frank Palmer, one of several people to question the threshold in emails to city government.

The warming center was to be available from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. in the community room at City Center West, 5830 Grand Ave., a complex that also houses a library branch, a fire station and a police substation. The decision to have it open is made by 5 p.m. the day before the forecast calls for the thermometer to dip below zero. Word is spread through social networks that reach the homeless.

In an interview, Palmer said he doesn’t think the city shows enough interest in people who are marginalized, and argued that the city had the funding to open the center at as warm as 20 degrees.

But City Council President Noah Hobbs said the funding, which comes from the county, is only enough to have the center open for 14 nights.

“The fact of the matter is we have 14 days to try this out and to make sure we’re having the most impact with the dollars possible,” said Hobbs, one of the leaders in the city-county-non governmental coalition that put together the pilot project. “If the conversation is 20 degrees and lower, we run out of money in 14 days, and are those the coldest days?”

St. Louis County Commissioner Frank Jewell said he was surprised by that concern. In the early planning for the shelter, it was thought $600 a night would be sufficient to staff a center, he said. After further discussion, it was thought that could be as high as $900. But the County Board appropriated $50,000 for the pilot project in Duluth (plus $15,000 for a project on the Iron Range). That amount ought to be enough to have a warming center open for 60 days, which would make 20 degrees a reasonable cutoff, Jewell said.

Although the number of unsheltered homeless in Duluth has been placed at well over 100, no one was expecting anywhere near that many people to show up at the warming center.

Lee Stuart, executive director of CHUM, guessed between five and 20 people might come in to get warm.

Hobbs said he planned to be there between 4 and 8 a.m. Friday to help with the transition. The room opens for its day job as the Evergreen Senior Center at 9 a.m.

It could be the first of several nights the warming center is open. The National Weather Service in Duluth predicted four straight nights of subzero conditions.

Stuart said it would be better if the center could be open even when the conditions are not as extreme.

“This is a pilot; it’s not perfect,” she said. “(The threshold) would be 40 and raining if it were me. But that’s not going to happen.”

Hobbs agreed.

“We can always do more, and we have to, but this is a good first step,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but we should not let perfect get in the way of good.”