Winona Community Warming Center volunteer Brian Sanders Jr. puts clean sheets on a bed before the doors of the center open. Volunteers show up early each day to prepare the center for the night’s guests.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
In an alley off Lafayette Street and behind the Community Bible Church, there’s an unassuming door that leads to one of the most important winter facilities for Winona’s homeless population. The Winona Community Warming Center, which is entering its third year of operations, provides a safe place to rest, wash up, and recoup for those who need it.
This past week, those services were needed more than ever. Thanks to the polar vortex and a nightmarish windchill, temperatures dropped to as low as 60-degrees below zero. For those without a home of their own, arctic temperatures like that can be a life-or-death situation.
“This is when lifelong [effects] can happen,” said Lynette Johnson, director of the Warming Center.
Johnson explained that the Warming Center opened its doors for the first time in January 2017 before expanding to November through March the following year. The center, which is housed in the basement of Community Bible Church, contains a large gathering space, a room of 10 beds, a small kitchen, a shower, a bathroom and a set of lockers for guests to lock up what “may be their only bag in the world.”
The goal for the Warming Center is to provide a safe space for Winona’s homeless population to spend the night where they don’t have to worry about being attacked, having their belongings stolen, or being forcefully removed. Residents can check in between 9 and 10 p.m. before the doors are locked, though if someone is late they will never be left out in the cold, Johnson explained.
“Could you imagine sleeping outside every night and not having anyone care?” Johnson asked. “We’re here to say that we care.”
Over the last week, other community organizations came together to help out. The public library extended its hours to 9 p.m., allowing people to stay out of the cold until the center opened its doors, and the Winona Fire Department helped bus people over to the shelter, keeping them out of the life-threatening tundra.
“The whole community has come together to support us,” Johnson said.
The center is run predominately by volunteers –– almost 200 of them, in fact. Volunteers help in shifts, either setting up the space for guests, looking out for them at night, or closing things down in the morning. Other volunteers help with laundry, or cooking meals for guests when they would otherwise go hungry, Johnson said.
Debi Niebuhr has been volunteering at the shelter since it began. She explained that she often volunteered at the Catholic Worker, helping prepare meals for the homeless, but when it closed its doors at night, she wanted to find a way to help out. She found that at the center.
“I saw the need and I was semi-retired, so I thought I could stay up till the middle of the night,” Niebuhr said.
Over the past two years, Niebuhr said volunteering at the center has been enlightening. Even with her experience working with vulnerable people, Niebuhr said helping at the center has given her more insight into how they live and who they are as individuals, learning the stories of people who have faced and continue to face hardships in their daily lives.
“I think it’s a tremendous, eye-opening experience. It allows you more compassion for other people,” Niebuhr said. “Over time, you develop relationships with the guests and worry about them on the cold nights. That’s why I do it –– the relationships. I’m doing something to help someone down on their luck.”
Not only that, but the volunteering also attacked her own biases, she said. “I would say it challenged my beliefs as well. When you look at homeless people, you think they’re drug addicts, that they’re this or that,” Niebuhr said.
However, many of the Warming Center’s guests are anything but. Some are veterans, some have mental health problems, some have lost their jobs, and some have just dealt with a broken furnace and need a place to sleep until they can repair it, she explained.
Don, a 62-year-old veteran of the Vietnam War, is a regular guest of the Warming Center. He uses the space to clean-up and rest between days. Being homeless means losing a lot of the necessities in life, so opportunities to do things like wash laundry and get a good night’s rest are important.
“Your time is limited,” Don said. “We can’t take for granted things that other people take for granted.”
Don said his days are pretty much the same. In the morning, he goes to McDonald’s for a cup of coffee, where he sits for a few hours. Then, he goes to the public library for a while, or to Winona State University to use the campus computers. At 6 p.m., when the library closes, he makes his way to the Acoustic Cafe for another cup of joe and a few hours, but the period between 6 and 9 p.m. is always the hardest in the winter.
“All you’re really doing is just killing time,” he said. “You’re out in 20-below weather from six to nine with nowhere to go. It’s psychologically taxing.”
Don has been in Winona for the past four weeks, spending his nights at the Warming Center and his days around town. Next week, he will be heading up to Minneapolis, Minn., to be housed at Veterans Affairs for a week while they try to find him a place to live.
“I’m luckier than most of the people here with the VA as a safety net. Most people don’t have that safety net,” he explained.
Housing is a big issue in Winona, Don said. Costs can be high, and many landlords will run a credit check before letting someone rent. This, combined with competition from students at Winona State University and St. Mary’s University, can make finding a place to live difficult.
“Housing in Winona isn’t cheap or easy to find,” Johnson added.
Additionally, Don said he believes that many people don’t know about the homeless population. When a person thinks about homeless people they think about major metropolitan areas like Minneapolis, St. Paul and Rochester.
“I don’t think a lot of people in Winona believe there are homeless people here,” Don explained. “There are a lot more than people realize.”
Before she started volunteering, Niebuhr said she didn’t realize there was a homeless population in Winona. “After I started working there, I see them all the time now,” Niebuhr said. “There was this kind of realization that there is a vulnerable population here in Winona that can easily go invisible.”
Despite that, Don said the community he found at the Warming Center has been very supportive, and works to help those in need figure out what to do next.
“This Warming Center is very good. All the people I have met here really try, and they care. The support here is strong,” Don said.
According to Johnson, every year, the center sees a new set of people come in its doors. Some guests are regulars, but a vast majority are new. The older guests end up helping out the newer ones, who may be dealing with homelessness for their first time, giving them tips on places to go and where to spend time. Johnson said that there is no way they can get everyone off the streets forever, but seeing new faces every year is a good sign.
“That’s our hope. We’re here for the long-term if needed, but we hope we’re just here short-term to help you get back on your feet,” Johnson said.
Next, Johnson hopes the center will be able to expand, make a larger kitchen and add in a second bathroom. She also said the group is looking to get a license to have more than 10 people stay at any given time. Despite not having the license, the city has been accommodating, allowing the center to take in more if needed.
“We will always take people in,” Johnson said.
For more information on the Winona Community Warming Center or how to volunteer, visit www.ccsomn.org/programs/winona-community-warming-center/ or contact Lynette Johnson at 507-458-9197.