After years of fundraising and planning, Rockland activists have finally put together an emergency warming center with permission from the city.
Once an emergency is declared — whether it’s a bad cold snap or a fierce storm — the shelter will open in the downtown Flanagan Community Center.
Before this effort, Rockland didn’t have such a place where people without heat or shelter could spend the night. There are several warming centers that are open during the day during the winter season, including the Rockland Public Library and City Hall, but no government buildings were operating as an overnight center.
In recent years, the Crossroads Church of the Nazarene had operated as a center to host people overnight, but as homelessness has grown in Maine and Rockland, the work became too much for the pastor and his wife to handle on their own.
The Knox County Homeless Coalition had been working to establish the warming center before the COVID-19 pandemic — raising funds, finding a location and making plans — but it took a backseat during the health emergency.
That previous planning made it easier to prepare the warming center this time around, said its manager, Luca Mellon.
The emergency warming center first opened temporarily during Hurricane Lee. Activists were able to get it up and running in four hours after the city approved it, the day before the hurricane was supposed to hit Rockland. Volunteers set up cots, and community members brought food, water and blankets. A few people stayed there that night.
More recently, the city granted permission for the emergency warming center on Oct. 11. The order allows for municipal funds to support its operations, authorizes the use of the Flanagan Community Center and encourages the city manager to form a plan with stakeholders before Dec. 1.
Molly Feeney, the Knox County Homeless Coalition’s chief program officer, previously said that training staff was a top concern, but that training is now happening. Besides Mellon, there are eight coordinators and several staff who will run the center next time it opens, although the precise number of staff is not yet known.
The staff are being trained in CPR and administration of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. There’s also an orientation program for the center and training on how to “hold faith for the most vulnerable members of the community,” Mellon said. They’ll be paid for their shifts when the center is operating.
Since it’s an emergency center, Mellon said it will only open during declared emergencies. The groups that have helped get it up-and-running include the Knox County Homeless Coalition, the Penquis community action agency, Area Interfaith Outreach and the city government.
“I believe that if there were an emergency next week, we would be able to operate and support the community members who need the space,” Mellon said.
Mellon doesn’t yet know how many people the warming center can hold at a time, and there’s limited funding left over from before the pandemic. Despite the uncertainty, Mellon is glad it’s coming together.
“I’m really excited to be a part of offering this to our community,” Mellon said. “It’s taken a lot of time and heart and effort for people in our community, and it gives me hope that other communities might be able to start something similar.”