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Columbus decision to close warming centers early draws criticism from nonprofit's director

The warming center operated by Community Development for All People at 946 Parsons Ave.
The warming center operated by Community Development for All People at 946 Parsons Ave.

The director of a Columbus warming shelter is criticizing city leaders' decision to close the centers ahead of schedule.

City officials cite safety concerns and said the centers have fulfilled their temporary need. However, Mike Premo, executive director of Community Development for All People, argues the decision is leaving people out in the cold. The nonprofit operated an overnight warming center at its Parson Avenue location.

"I'm looking at the 10-day forecast. And out of the next 10 days, seven of them are supposed to have lows at or below freezing. And that is that's dangerous," Premo said. “Even when it's 70 degrees during the day, it's still 30 degrees at night.”

The nonprofit intended to provide services through mid-March. Premo said the warming shelter was a safe place for dozens of people every night, with an average of 80 last week. He said he doesn't agree that safety was compromised at the shelter and that it is still needed.

“Folks are still looking for a warm place to sleep. And they were coming to us, because with us, they felt safer than they did anywhere else," Premo said.

Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther's office reports there have been more than 50 police calls to that shelter since December. That was in addition to a stabbing at another location in the University District as well as other police calls to other warming shelters. The calls included 33 for a disturbance, five for assault, three for domestic violence and two fights.

Premo said no one came to him to talk about safety concerns at the location.

"It is really frustrating because if there were issues, no one presented them to us," Premo said. "If they had, I would have said, 'come on down, come see for yourself, come spend time in our building. And you will see that this is a place that is well staffed, well supervised, is safe and secure,'" he said.

Melanie Crabill, with Ginther's office, said the city intended to end funding for the program at the end of February.

Crabill said the program was spearheaded by Columbus City Council and was the first time "we funded a coordinated warming center network."

It was safety concerns that ended the program early, but it was also time for the program to end, Crabill said.

"The warming centers have served their purpose, providing places for those experiencing homelessness to go during extreme weather. They were never intended to be permanent shelters, but instead one part of many resources available to those in need," Crabill said.

Premo said he was "surprised" at the decision and feels they offered their clients something more.

“Even though all we were providing was a hot meal and a yoga mat and a blanket, and two bathrooms for 80 people, they kept coming back to us like they did in years past because they felt safer with us than they did at any other location or the shelving system," he said. "We've always said that the greatest validation of our warming centers is when you hear people snoring, because that means that they were able to go into that deep restful sleep that everybody has to get in order to stay healthy."

Premo said he intends to work with elected officials on ways to create a "better safety net" for people experiencing homelessness in the city.

Steven Skovensky, programs and planning director at the Community Shelter Board, said there are other options for emergency shelter in the city, and that bed capacity is expanded in winter.

"These beds remain available and can be accessed by anyone in need of emergency shelter by using a phone to call the Homeless Hotline at 614-274-7000. Once an individual calls the hotline and enters a shelter, they will be on a pathway to access services and work on rehousing," Skovensky said.

Skovensky said there are also outreach teams on the streets to find people who aren't sheltered. And, there are daytime warming centers available, a list is available at the Community Shelter Board's website.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.