With freezing weather getting a firm grip on the area, Killeen opened the city’s community center as a warming shelter last weekend.

It was the right thing to do.

It’s just too bad the city needed some prompting in order to make it happen.

Prior to the city’s Dec. 30 announcement, the city said it would refer residents to the Friends in Crisis homeless shelter downtown or assist them with other resources.

After reporters at the Herald last week inquired about the lack of a city warming shelter, officials apparently revised their strategy. — and that’s a good thing..

The homeless shelter serves a different clientele than does a warming shelter and is generally at or near capacity in cold weather. While it’s doubtful that residents seeking shelter would be turned away by Friends in Crisis, sending residents there who are simply seeking short-term relief seems less than ideal.

As such, the decision to open a warming shelter for the first time in more than two years is a welcome move.

The shelter at the community center, which opened at 3 p.m. New Year’s Eve, offered residents shower facilities and snacks on site, as well as a warm place to take shelter from the elements.

Killeen was quick to set up these centers in previous years.

In 2014, Killeen opened the Killeen Community Center as a warming center when a cold snap hit the area in November. On the first night, 10 people stayed overnight, and the following night 17 people used the facility.

The previous year, 18 people used the community center and the Boys & Girls Club, which were both opened as warming centers in early December.

But in December 2015, the Friends in Crisis homeless shelter opened its doors, and the focus subsequently shifted away from city-run warming centers.

That shouldn’t be the case.

First of all, residents don’t have to be homeless in order to need a place to get warm. Hypothermia is especially dangerous for older residents and young children, and if a home is poorly insulated or has an inefficient heating system, subfreezing temperatures can put them at risk.

Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says victims of hypothermia are often older adults with inadequate food, clothing or heating, as well as babies sleeping in cold bedrooms. Neither of those categories necessarily fits the definition of homelessness.

Second, the homeless shelter downtown is difficult to reach for some residents, as opposed to the Killeen Community Center, which is more centrally located and well served by the Hop bus system.

Finally, the warming shelter is less intimidating to some residents than the downtown shelter, and the city’s offer of snacks and hot showers makes it especially appealing.

While city officials are commended for the decision to open the warming center, the question remains as to why they didn’t do a better job informing the public of its availability.

Last week, just three people used the shelter in its five days of extended-hours operation.

It’s fair to ask whether it’s an indication that few residents needed the service, or whether most simply didn’t know about it.

The city issued a one-time news release to local media and posted the announcement on its website, but no mention of it was made on social media, where many residents get their information.

In retrospect, the suddenness of the announcement makes the decision to open a warming shelter seem like a bit of an afterthought — especially since the city had said, just two days earlier, that residents would be referred to the downtown homeless shelter.

Obviously, it’s important that all affected residents have the opportunity to use the warming shelter — and that can only happen with proper notification.

Not everyone in need of shelter has access to the internet. Not everyone likely heard or saw the city news release on local media outlets.

And not everyone was comfortable with checking in at the city’s downtown shelter.

That leaves open the possibility that a segment of the city’s population was unaware and unserved last week.

Anyone who has seen people shivering in the doorways of businesses knows how seriously options are needed for those suffering in the cold. Obviously, communicating with those who are suffering is essential as well. City officials noted that first responders were instructed to inform people who appeared to be in need of shelter about the warming shelter option.

That’s good, but more must be done to get the word out.

 In the future, residents should receive prior notification in their utility bills that the warming center will be open if cold conditions persist. They should be given a phone number to call when cold weather moves in, so they can find out when a shelter will be open to them.

In addition, the city should work with local TV outlets to run scrolling information about the warming shelter across the screen — as with school closings and road conditions — when bad weather moves into the area. The Herald could post this information prominently on its website as well.

Finally, the city should work on establishing an alert system by which shelter information is texted to residents with utility account information on file with the city. The Herald could assist in this effort, texting alerts to its readers — many of whom live outside the Killeen city limits but who require short-term shelter.

The city showed its compassion when it opened its arms to evacuees from Southeast Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. City officials, relief workers and volunteers went out of their way to make them feel comfortable and welcome.

We must do the same for our own residents — especially those who are most vulnerable to the cold.

Certainly, opening a warming center after a two-year hiatus was a good first step.

But we can and must do better.

dmiller@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7543

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