The city of Killeen did the right thing in opening its warming center last week — in principle, at least.
However, implementation of the policy came up a bit short.
With cold, wet weather moving into the area midweek, the Killeen Community Center opened its doors to residents in need of a warm place to stay. The warming center was in operation both Wednesday and Thursday night, in anticipation of freezing temperatures.
However, the center didn’t open until 9 p.m. — nearly three hours after sundown.
At this time of year, the temperature can drop quickly after dark. Wednesday’s gusty north winds produced a wind chill in the low 20s by the time the shelter opened up. Those are dangerous conditions for anyone who doesn’t have adequate shelter.
On Dec. 17, when a cold front blew into the area during the evening, the Community Center again opened its doors as a warming shelter — but not until 1 a.m., the time at which the temperature was expected to drop to 32 degrees.
Opening a shelter in the middle of the night makes little sense.
For those seeking a warm place to stay, it’s likely that by 1 a.m. they have already located whatever shelter they can find. It’s a little late for shelter-seekers to be changing locales, especially if they don’t have a way to get to the warming center.
That brings up another problem with the warming center situation — lack of public transportation in the evenings.
Since the Hop regional bus system no longer offers service after 6 p.m., residents who need shelter but don’t have their own transportation would have a difficult time getting to the warming center. This problem is magnified when extreme conditions make it dangerous to walk any distance. And not everyone can afford to call a cab or a ride-sharing service.
One obvious solution would be to move up the warming center’s hours of operation to 5 p.m., so residents could take advantage of bus service to get there, if necessary.
Of course, the earlier opening time for the warming center may conflict with events and activities planned at the Community Center, but surely some accommodations could be made for residents in need.
No doubt, getting to the warming center is a challenge for some people, but finding out if and when the center is open may be almost as difficult.
Currently, the city notifies the public of the warming center’s availability through emails to media outlets, through social media and on the city’s website. It also alerts first responders, according to Hilary Shine, the city’s executive director of communications.
These are all good steps, but those who don’t have access to the internet or can’t monitor news outlets may be in the dark about the availability of the warming center.
The city of Temple has taken an additional step with the creation of a 2-1-1 Helpline, which provides information on hours of shelter operation. With this service in place, residents with only a land line phone at their disposal can access the necessary information.
Temple residents also have a choice of three temporary shelter locations when cold weather moves in: The Salvation Army and Impact Church offer their services as warming centers at night, and St. Vincent du Paul offers shelter from the cold during the daytime. A fourth location, Feed My Sheep, usually offers shelter services but is currently hampered by water pipe problems.
Killeen’s warming shelter is a good idea, but the concept can be improved upon.
First, the city should follow Temple’s lead and initiate a three-digit hotline that provides 24-hour information on shelter availability and hours of operation.
Second, the city should establish some safe “Cop Stop” locations at which first responders could pick up residents needing a ride to the warming center.
Third, the city should dedicate the necessary resources and staffing to expand the warming center’s hours of operation. It should also be available when the temperature is above freezing, but wind or rain create potentially dangerous conditions for residents without adequate shelter.
Finally, the city should work with churches and charitable organizations to expand the number of facilities available to provide a place to get warm.
Certainly, Killeen has a downtown homeless shelter, but Friends in Crisis serves a different function. Friends in Crisis focuses more on long-term homelessness, whereas the warming shelter offers temporary respite from the cold.
Granted, Killeen’s warming center is only put into operation a few days out of the year. But those frigid days can be pivotal in the lives of our city’s most vulnerable residents.
We can’t, in good conscience, simply let them fend for themselves when we could do more to help.
Now is the perfect time to take the first step.