Battle Creek

City-owned rec center in Battle Creek becomes a shelter for those in need

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage.

UPDATED: 4/5/2020

Full Blast was likely never intended for use as anything but an activity and recreation center for area residents.

But, when the city-owned venue closed its doors to comply with state-mandated orders put in place to stem the spread of the Coronavirus, it wasn’t long before city and community leaders found a new use for it that would benefit populations who may never have been through its doors before.

On March 23, it became the temporary site of a daytime shelter for a limited number of clients of the SHARE (Self-Help, Awareness, Recovery, and Enrichment) Center which closed its doors on March 17 to better comply with social distancing requirements.  

This past Friday the 88,000-square-foot facility, located in downtown Battle Creek, began serving as the Haven of Rest Ministries public drop-in overnight shelter.  While the SHARE Center hours are from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, hours for the overnight shelter, which is for men only, are 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. seven days a week.

“This is to create the at-least six feet of recommended physical distance between people, and still serve the homeless in our community. Both day and night shelters are capped at 50 people, though they have not reached capacity so far, nor do they anticipate doing so,” according to a press release from the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

SHARE Center and city staff will continue to operate the day shelter, monitoring from 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Haven and city staff will operate and monitor the overnight shelter from 9 p.m.-7 a.m.  They also are working out plans to create access to showers for those using the shelter. The city and shelter teams also will create access to showers during the day for those using the Full Blast shelter.

The Haven’s regular men’s shelter remains open, as does the Inasmuch House family and children shelter. The Inasmuch House overnight women’s shelter remains open from 11 p.m.-6 a.m. at the Haven of Rest site.

The SHARE Center is continuing to operate its kitchen and meal service at its Grove Street location. Homeless individuals make up the largest segment of populations served by the SHARE Center. They drop in to the day shelter to get out of the cold and get a meal.

But, for some in the community, the SHARE Center is more than a place to go during the day to get a free breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They can also receive assistance to get a state-issued ID; or get help with addiction or mental health issues.

As social distancing and shelter in place orders came down from the governor, Robert Elchert, SHARE (Self-Help, Awareness, Recovery, and Enrichment) Center Executive Director, says he knew it was no longer business as usual for his organization.

He recognized that social distancing would not be possible at the 9,000-square-foot building at 120 Grove Street and the SHARE Center would not be able to continue to serve clients on-site. On March 17, he posted to the community coronavirus response page that they would be closed until further notice, but would continue to prepare and provide carry-out meals at the center that typically serves upwards of 100 people per day.

“The issue first came up when those early Executive Orders (by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer) banned gatherings of a certain size and that resulted in the SHARE Center closing its facility. But then there was the issue of how we deal with the homeless population, which is an issue in a lot of cities,” says Ted Dearing, Battle Creek’s Assistant City Manager. “As community stakeholders, we thought we needed to do that.”

A sub-group of the city’s Emergency Operations Center, which includes representatives from various community sectors, charged with addressing the needs of the city’s homeless and vulnerable population came up with the idea to use Full Blast as an alternative site for the SHARE Center.

“We looked at a couple of different options that would maintain a certain amount of social distancing and accommodate different size groups. One of our facilities that made sense for a day center that could function as a drop-in day shelter was Full Blast,” Dearing says.

The SHARE Center at 120 Grove Street makes up meals to go for those who normally eat at the center.

Elchert says he has been very impressed with the way community and city leaders have come together to provide quick and impactful responses to the needs being driven by the virus.

“They knew we were limited with space at the SHARE Center so city officials offered us the use of Full Blast and we gladly accepted,” Elchert says. “We’re just trying to make it as non-disruptive as possible for our clients.”

Those served by the SHARE Center are often overcoming barriers such as mental health issues or substance abuse which can be huge obstacles when trying to get out of situations like homelessness and not having enough to eat. Elchert says being able to have a continuation of services on some level is important for those who continue to work towards self-sufficiency.

Four employees from the SHARE Center staff the facility on a rotating basis. Elchert says a barrier with the required 6-foot distance has been set up near a makeshift desk that serves as the entry point for clients who come in.

“I went out and bought garment racks and shower curtains to create a shield around the desk,” Elchert says. “We’ve got handwashing stations, Lysol, and disinfecting wipes, and everybody is being very vigilant about keeping it clean and germ-free. We’re short on N95 masks, but everybody else is too.”

Under normal circumstances, especially when it’s cold outside, the SHARE Center could see upwards of 100 people per day who congregated in a 2,000-square-foot space at the Grove Street location.

“A lot of these people who come in are low-income or live in adult foster care homes,” Elchert says. “We’re limiting access to Full Blast to those who don’t have a home. We’ve been seeing between 20 and 30 a day.

“We have about 20 people who are staying in hotels right now. They’re not only homeless, but they have other underlying issues like being elderly with a history of respiratory issues or diabetes.”

The funds to put these people up in hotels came through an emergency relief fund established by the United Way of the Battle Creek/Kalamazoo Region to address the needs of the communities as they navigate fallout from COVID-19.

When the Full Blast site closes for the day, Elchert says he thinks some who were there were seeking shelter at places like the Haven of Rest Ministries and others sleep out on the street. 

As grateful as Elchert is for the city’s willingness to provide space for his clients at Full Blast, he says he had concerns about asking his staff to put themselves in a situation where they could be exposed to the virus.

“There’s no precedent for this and it’s an uncomfortable position to be in,” he says. “We’re an essential service but I’m putting myself and staff in a position where we could all be exposed. It’s uncomfortable as the leader of an organization to have an expectation of your staff to do that. How do I get my staff together and ask them to put themselves in this position?”

Out of his 10-person staff, one isn’t able to work because of health issues and some are helping out in the kitchen at the Grove Street location. This includes a full-time cook and kitchen manager who began working shortly before the relocation to Full Blast. He and a part-time employee are making the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners that are available for take-out and delivery to clients staying at hotels.

Volunteers have also been helping out with the preparation and delivery of dinners, the busiest time of the day for the SHARE Center kitchen.

Under normal circumstances, through its cafeteria and a separate drop-in area the SHARE Center was serving more than 100 meals each day to adults and children who have a place to live but may not always have access to food. The three-meal-a-day service has continued without disruption.

“We are taking as many meals as we can to Full Blast and people can still come to the Share Center during regular meal times to get take-out meals,” Elchert says.

When grocery store shelves were being emptied, Elchert says he became concerned that people would be donating less to the South Michigan Food Bank based in Battle Creek.

But there apparently was no need for concern because, he says, “We’re still getting food from the Food Bank and we’ve been overwhelmed with the donations we’ve been getting. I had to go out and buy another refrigerator/freezer and had a hard time finding one because everyone was buying those too.”

While the basic needs are being met for SHARE Center clients, Elchert says other face-to-face services have been put on hold. These services include Peer Support programs that focus on addiction and mental health issues; programs dealing with anger management, employment, and life skills; and groups for men and women that offer activities.

Under normal circumstances, the SHARE Center staff also works with clients to get them a state-issued ID so they can open a bank account, apply for jobs or receive social services. Elchert says about 200 homeless individuals each year receive assistance from the SHARE Center to get the necessary documentation.

“Sometimes it takes a little bit of detective work,” he says.

Once a new normal is established, he says he hopes people will be a little more sensitive to the barriers faced by the community’s homeless.

“I think people are kind of aware, but I hope that lasts through whatever the next thing is,” Elchert says. “Homeless people are just more vulnerable.”

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.
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