The City of Somerville has created an overnight warming center for unhoused residents that will stay open for the winter season. Located at the Armory at 191 Highland Ave., the new center is a partnership with two local nonprofits: Housing Families and the Somerville Homeless Coalition.
Last year, the city operated pop-up warming centers in churches and city buildings on especially cold days and nights. This year, the facility will remain open every night from 6:45 p.m. to 7 a.m. through March 24. It can host up to 20 guests each night.
“After last year, it went really well and we thought … it would be great to offer [a facility of this kind] for more of the winter,” said Karin Carroll, Somerville’s director of health and human services.
At the warming center, guests are offered a hot catered meal for dinner and sandwiches for breakfast. They also have access to a kitchen stocked with coffee, hot chocolate and other snacks as well as a “resource table,” where they can find toiletries, warm winter clothing, books and puzzles.
Taylor Sokol, a clinical social worker at Housing Families who helped set up the warming center, described what a night might look like for a first-time guest.
“If it is their first time … we’ll go through the expectations of the space [and] the structure of what will happen throughout the night and in the morning, give them a tour, and answer any questions they may have about what they can and cannot do,” Sokol said.
“[After dinner], guests are free to be in their cots or be in the kitchen,” she added. “We have lights-out and quiet hours at around 10:45, but oftentimes it quiets down before that.”
Unlike a traditional shelter, which often prioritizes moving guests into permanent homes, the focus of the Winter Warming Center is to provide immediate relief from cold weather conditions. Still, Housing Families and the city also hope that the center can serve as a first point of contact for Somerville’s unhoused population. Both organizations are happy to direct unhoused people to relevant organizations should they decide to seek further assistance.
“Last year we did have some guests that, after staying with us for one night, decided to fill out a housing application with one of the outreach teams,” Carroll said. “It’s a part of connecting people to services when they’re ready.”
Sokol reflected on the importance of developing a rapport with each guest.
“What I’ve found helpful is offering choice and prioritizing the client’s autonomy … understanding that they might be nervous or skeptical, which is totally normal,” she said. “[We] emphasize that they can leave at any time, that they can just come check it out, eat and then leave. … There’s no obligation to stay [or] to come back. The staff are there to support them.”
The warming center has seen a steady increase in nightly occupancy since it opened on Jan. 8. According to Sokol, about 14 to 16 guests stay each night these days, up from just five or six in its early days. Most have been repeat guests, but Sokol said that she still occasionally sees a new face.
To that end, Carroll recognized the difficulty in spreading the word to a population that is notoriously hard to reach, often lacking access to the internet and other typical channels of communication.
“Mainly the folks we’re trying to reach are not on the internet,” she said. “They’re remote or living outside. So we really relied on our [nonprofit] partners … and their street outreach teams. … They're out there, reminding folks about the warming center, where it is, how to get there, and that it's safe.”
Although the warming center has been successful so far, it remains to be seen whether the city will reopen the facility next winter. According to Carroll, this year’s initiative was made possible by one-time funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, created during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Somerville is using [its ARPA funding] for populations that were hit really hard by COVID, like our unhoused, our low income,” Carroll said. “[But] the ARPA funds are one-off funds … they will go away after this year.”
Still, she remains optimistic. Now that the program has had a successful trial run, she hopes to further expand the city’s offerings for unhoused residents at facilities like the Somerville Homeless Coalition’s Daytime Engagement Center in Davis Square.
As for Housing Families, Director of External Relations Molly Abrahamson said her organization was also here to stay.
“We’re new to Somerville and just starting to build our relationships,” Abramson said. “We did a new warming center in Revere last year and are doing it again this year. Usually when we enter these contracts, it is with the goal of building out partnerships with the cities.”
Carroll hopes to see the progress continue, and is pleased with what they’ve accomplished thus far.
“We’re very proud … to be able to offer somewhere safe and warm for our most vulnerable residents, seven nights a week,” she said.