Open when temps first drop or when they're at their worst? For cold weather shelters, there's no right decision

Posted at 1:34 AM, Dec 12, 2019

CINCINNATI — Cold weather arrived early this year. But Shelterhouse, one of the largest and most accessible shelters in the city of Cincinnati, didn’t open its 210-bed winter shelter until Wednesday.

Part of the reason Shelterhouse remained closed longer than usual was the facility was undergoing renovations,executive director Arlene Nolan said. On Halloween, the shelter was not yet finished with the security-system upgrade meant to better protect its guests or the bathroom expansion that will ensure more people have access to facilities when they spend the night.

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The other part was money. Nolan said deciding when to open the winter shelter can be especially difficult in years when cold weather arrives early. If her team waits too long, people without shelter will spend freezing nights sleeping on the street.

If they act too soon, Shelterhouse could exhaust its thinning resources before the coldest weather of the year.

“In the past couple of years, we’ve had limited resources,” Nolan said. “We want to be good stewards of the funds that we get from largely donors or the city. We make sure we can be open during the harshest days of winter, so that’s why sometimes we open up a little later in December.”

It’s a difficult balancing act, she said. There’s no easy solution except for Cincinnati to develop either more resources or more affordable housing.

But the delay in opening Shelterhouse left some homeless people literally out in the cold.

“We had a gap for several weeks, over 40 days,” Councilman Greg Landsman said Wednesday night. “It was cold, and the winter shelter wasn’t open because it was being renovated. The only reason that people were able to find shelter, to find a warm place to sleep and a good, solid meal and some compassion and hope was because of our many partners. People who opened up their churches, who drove around and found folks who were out on the streets and brought them to a safe place to sleep and to eat.”

The anti-poverty organization Maslow’s Army made the first annual excursion in its warming van, a temporary mobile refuge for people experiencing homelessness, the night of Halloween.

Founder Sam Landis spent the following weeks making frequent pleas for churches and jails to create space for people who would otherwise be sleeping outdoors in the cold.

Shelterhouse’s winter shelter accepts guests of all genders and has some of the lowest barriers for entry out of all Cincinnati-area shelters, meaning people who might not be welcomed into other shelters because of criminal pasts or addictions can use it as long as they do not endanger other guests.

It will remain open 7 p.m.—6 a.m. for the rest of the winter.