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Five people take advantage of West Duluth warming center in inaugural night

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

Five homeless individuals took advantage of a place to come in out of the cold on Thursday night.

"We had five folks and no incidents, and we expect tonight to be better," Duluth City Council President Noah Hobbs said on Friday of the inaugural night for the City Center West Warming Center at 5830 Grand Ave. in West Duluth.

The city-owned space ordinarily serves as a senior center, but it's being used as a place to warm up on cold nights during a 14-day trial period with funding from St. Louis County and staffing from CHUM, a faith-based outreach to the homeless.

It's open from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. on nights when temperatures are expected to dip below zero. Thursday's low temperature was 11 below, according to the National Weather Service.

Four homeless people arrived by 11 p.m., Hobbs said, and a fifth came later. Although there's no cots or bedding at the site and sleeping is discouraged, people were lying down and dozing when he arrived at 4 a.m., Hobbs said.

A coffeepot was on, and on Friday night healthy snacks were going to be provided plus sandwiches for the road on Saturday morning. People also were going to be provided bus passes to go downtown, Hobbs said.

"They're heading downtown for the Damiano (Center) for breakfast," he said. There are also more warm places available during the day downtown than elsewhere, he said, such as the library and the transit center.

Hobbs and other organizers of the warming center got pushback this week for the zero-degree threshold to open the center. In a statement issued late Thursday, the Homeless Person's Bill of Rights Coalition called for the center to be open at 20 degrees or below.

The group's statement noted that the county had provided $50,000 for a Duluth warming center and contended there's ample money to keep the center open in less extreme conditions.

Hobbs had said that with a 14-day trial period, the city wanted the center to be available on the coldest nights.

"The 14 days was our understanding of how we were going to work on this pilot," Hobbs said on Friday. "I think there was miscommunication on the county and the city on that regard."

City of Duluth people involved in talks about the center had believed the county would only provide enough money for 14 nights, Hobbs explained. He held out the possibility of raising the threshold.

"I think we have to continue to see how it goes and make sure things go well with cleaning and all of that," he said. "There is a chance for (a higher threshold) to happen."

In a statement, the city of Duluth reported the first night "went off without a hitch." The city and its partners would "adjust course if needed," it continued.

The decision already had been made to open the center again on Friday night, and a decision about Saturday night would be made on Saturday morning, said Phil Jents, the city's communications and policy officer.

The National Weather Service was forecasting lows of 19 below to 23 below zero on Saturday night, with wind chill values as low as 37 below.

For updates

The City Center West Warming Center has a Facebook page at which announcements about whether or not it is open are posted.