Getting out of the cold: Advocates work to open warming shelters for Kalamazoo's unhoused population

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's series on solutions to homelessness. It is made possible by a coalition of funders including the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, the ENNA Foundation, and LISC.


The Kalamazoo Community Warming Shelter reopened in mid-November at the Kalamazoo Salvation Army just in time for the Nov. 17-19 snowstorm that left more than two feet of snow in parts of Southwest Michigan.
 
But the warming shelter, which is open from noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays to provide a warm refuge for anyone in need, saw very few visitors as the snow piled up leading into that weekend.
 
“People tend to hunker down when it’s snowing that bad,” says Carly Walter, of the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Unhoused.
 
“Hunkering down” conjures images of people happily getting warm inside a toasty house after shoveling the sidewalk or clearing off a car. But for those working to help people who are living outdoors, a picture that advocates snapped of a snow-covered tent on Nov. 18, is a more apt image.
 
“So we had a donation of a tent,” says Walter. “And whenever we get a used donation, we want to set it up and make sure it’s got all the parts and actually works. So a couple of volunteers went out and set it up. And then the snow happened.”
 
Within a couple of hours, the tent was engulfed by snow. And Walter took a picture.
 
Within two hours, this tent donated to help someone living outdoors, was covered by snow within two hours of the heavy snow on Nov. 18, 2022.“That particular image, in itself, really spoke to me and was powerful for me. So that’s why I wanted to share that out,” says Walter, who posted the image on the Coalition’s Facebook page.
 
She says she does not have numbers but knows the warming center had significantly fewer visitors than it has now, or than it had last year. The second-year partnership between the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Unhoused and the Salvation Army, is using the Salvation Army’s facilities at 1700 S. Burdick St. It has been seeing about 35 visitors per day.
 
Many unhoused people who live outdoors in tents and tree-lined areas -- but just outside the view of passersby and the police -- stay wherever they are when the weather gets bad.
 
Carly Walter, of the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Unhoused. “You have to hunker down because if you’re out, that’s when the frostbite and all that stuff happens,” Walter says.
 
The Community Warming Shelter uses the gymnasium of the Salvation Army. It is an almost completely volunteer effort. As the warming shelter draw in more people the coalition hires a security staff person and then three to six volunteers help as needed. Along with warm space, the shelter provides coats, clothing, blankets, pillows, hygiene products, a hot meal, a snack bag, and any other items that have been donated, including tents and flashlights. It also provides access to showers, adjacent to the gym and offers help to people applying for housing assistance and government food assistance.
 
Among the organizations that have volunteered items, supplies and time, or all three are: Kalamazoo Mobile Closet, Animal’s Best Friend Fund, the Kalamazoo Humane Society, Gentleman Joe’s Catering Co., and United for the Unsheltered.
 
How are the unhoused managing to get through inclement weather?
 
“Some people are on their own,” Walter says. “Some people will venture into the shelters when there’s crazy weather like that. And then some will work together to form whatever community, wherever that can be located.”
 
She says, “They really work together. So when someone has a car … they’ll all hunker down in the car, for instance. From what I’ve seen and heard, they try to work together.”
 
The Kalamazoo Gospel Mission provides overnight shelter for those in need. The only permanently established day shelter in Kalamazoo is Ministry With Community, a nonprofit resource center and day shelter at 500 N. Edwards St. It has facilities for people to shower, wash clothes, receive mail, recharge devices, get a meal to-go, get a medical evaluation, and get plugged into social services, mental health services, and employment services as needed.
 
Executive Director Kelly Henderson says the Ministry with Community can shelter up to 100 people at a time. There are some worries that the Ministry will not have enough capacity to help all of those who will need assistance this winter. Henderson says her staff is very attentive, however, and works to grow relationships with people so they understand their situations and what help they need.
 
Alejandra Morales, outreach coordinator for the Kalamazoo Humane Society, prepares to provide supplies for pets at the Community Warming Center.“It’s always having that conversation to discern what a person’s unique, individual needs are and then how can we solve that,” Henderson says. When the facility is at capacity, she says, “It might be that we’re going to need you to wait outside for a little bit. And as soon as somebody leaves, then we’ll get you in.”
 
Staff members also provide referrals to alternate resources for help.
 
Advocates for the unhoused are working together to try to get the financial resources to get a second warming shelter open. Integrated Services of Kalamazoo has been working to get a second warming shelter started. It has hoped to use the facilities of The River church. But funding for the project has become a problem. There is a need for alternate warming centers, says Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson because the need appears to be increasing.
 
“We still have a situation where shelter beds are not full in Kalamazoo,” Anderson says, referring to the use of the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission. “For whatever reason people aren’t taking advantage of them, which means that we have a larger unsheltered community than we’ve had in Kalamazoo. And so that’s straining the resources.”
 
Kalamazoo Community Warming Center is a partnership between the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Unhoused and the Kalamazoo Salvation Army. It uses the Salvation Army’s facilities at 1700 S. Burdick St. Anderson, who works professionally as director of Facilities and Housing Services for ISK, says ISK is working to help get another alternative warming center up and going. Walter says in conversations with others there is a tentative plan to have a warming center, other than Ministry With Community, open five days a week during the cold-weather months.
 
Henderson says this may be the first time some of the people it sees are experiencing homelessness during the winter months. And she says the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a lot of situations for many people. “But it’s a really resilient community and there’s a lot of resource-sharing, a lot of conversation, and helping each other,” she says. “It’s a powerful community. So I’m always optimistic.”
 
Of the Community Warming Shelter at the Salvation Army, Walter says, “I think it’s really important to know that this is all completely volunteer-run. The donations are volunteer. The people that are cooking, the people that are serving, the people that are cleaning, doing everything, it’s been 100 percent volunteer. I think that really speaks (well) of the community and the passion that Kalamazooans have for this issue and trying to help eliminate it or make it better any way they can.”
 

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.