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Cambridge Plans to Open Warming Center at Reduced Capacity in December

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The City of Cambridge will open its warming center at a reduced capacity of 30 guests on Dec. 1 as a temporary shelter space option for homeless individuals this winter.

Located in the basement of the Cambridge Senior Center, the city has opened the center each winter since Jan. 2018 to “provide a welcoming, low threshold, indoor overnight service that will provide food, a safe place to rest, and protection from inclement weather,” according to its website.

When the warming center last opened from Dec. 2019 to April 2020, Bay Cove Human Services — a nonprofit organization that currently staffs the city’s temporary emergency shelter at the War Memorial/Spaulding Hospital — operated it seven nights a week from 7:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. for an average of 45 guests per night.

During the pandemic, the warming center will operate under social distancing guidelines. The city is also weighing keeping the center open during the day, according to an email from Assistant City Manager for Human Services Ellen Semonoff.

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“In the past, the warming center did not operate during the day, but in light of the current needs, we are reexamining those plans,” Semonoff wrote. “We are still working on what day time operations might look like.”

The Unhoused Advocacy Subcommittee of the Cambridge Nonprofit Coalition — an advocacy group focused on issues of housing and homelessness in Cambridge — has met with city officials to push for initiatives to provide shelter to people who need it this winter.

Jessye Kass, director of the Cambridge Women’s Center and chair of the subcommittee, said opening of the warming center will not be sufficient to house people this winter because of reduced shelter options in the city. Several homeless shelters have had to shut down or run at reduced capacity during the pandemic.

“More day services are closed, and places where people used to be able to go — like Clover was open 24 hours, the airport, you could go and stay until 4 a.m., and they would do a sweep, or emergency room waiting rooms — all of these places that people went to stay alive at night in the winter when they couldn't get a bed are no longer available this year. And then there's a decrease in the bed count,” Kass said.

Members of the subcommittee have asked the city to consider expanding and adding new shelter spaces and sites for the season.

“The biggest concern among people who are unhoused that I’ve heard or people share is that there won’t be a place to go outside of the cold,” said Cassie Hurd, a member of the subcommittee and the executive director of the Material Aid and Advocacy Program.

If no new shelter spaces are offered this winter, the subcommittee anticipates that homeless people will die from the cold. Reverend Robin Lutjohann, another subcommittee member and minister at the Faith Lutheran Church, said “time is running short” and that more people are in need of spaces.

“I have to believe that if you decrease the sheltering space and increase the people and the needs, there's gonna be more people who are dead,” Lutjohann said. “And not to be overly dramatic, their blood would be on our hands.”

In addition to opening the warming center, Semonoff also wrote that the city is working with “various community providers to offer support as they look at ways that they might be able to expand or manage their services differently this winter.”

City Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan said he expects the number of people who experience housing insecurity in Cambridge will increase because of the pandemic-driven economic recession and the end of the statewide eviction moratorium.

“We’re going to have even more people out on the streets unprotected,” Zondervan said. “And the current solutions that the city is offering are just not sufficient to meet that need.”

—Staff writer Jeromel Dela Rosa Lara can be reached at jeromel.lara@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeromellara.

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