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'Unbelievable' community support keeps Carbondale Warming Center going amid COVID-19 crisis


The Carbondale Warming Center received a grant from SIH COVID-19 Relief Fund to purchase soap, paper towels, soap dispensers, masks and sanitizer.

The Carbondale Warming Center — typically only open overnight during the winter months — quickly transitioned into a 24/7 facility last month providing critical shelter to more than 30 people who are experiencing homelessness during a stay-at-home order.

It’s one of the few places in Southern Illinois that is continuing to accept people in need of a place to stay as COVID-19 spreads throughout the country. 

In mid-March, shelter organizers said they would stay open past their planned April 1 closure date, but didn’t know how long they could manage to keep the doors open financially. Thanks to a lifeline from the state and numerous donations from Carbondale-area residents, the shelter plans to remain open until at least April 30. 

Scott Martin, a member of the committee that oversees the Carbondale Warming Center, said this shelter wouldn’t be viable if it weren’t for the generous donations of food and money from area residents and businesses. Even some business owners who have been forced to close down establishments and are experiencing their own hardships have offered resources, he said.

Martin called the support the shelter has received from the community “unbelievable.”

“It’s neat to see people who are just coming out of the woodwork helping with finances in a day that not everybody appreciates the homeless population,” he said. “I hope that continues.”

Carmalita Cahill, who coordinates daily operations at the shelter, credited organizers and a willing staff with working quickly to transition from an overnight to a 24/7 shelter. The center is not licensed to serve food, but can reheat donated meals using crock pots and microwaves. Area churches, political leaders and others have also catered several hot meals to residents, which she said has lifted the spirits of the people staying there. “We’ve been very blessed,” she said.

The Carbondale Warming Center, in its second year, is routinely only open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. from Dec. 1 to March 31. It offers a dry, warm bed when other shelters are full, or for people who aren’t able or willing to enter them because of more restrictive rules and admittance policies.

This is the first season the shelter is operating from its new location at 608 E. College St., in an old dormitory building across from the former Carbondale police station.

Cahill said she and her other staff worked closely with physicians from Southern Illinois Healthcare in March to retrofit the space to allow for social distancing to the greatest degree possible. Space upstairs was dedicated for isolating or quarantine people, as necessary, should they become sick from COVID-19 or any other illness.

Cahill said residents are adjusting, and most are spending their days on the property. The center is providing tobacco so that residents who smoke can roll their own cigarettes, cutting down on their need to run errands. Everyone’s temperature is checked daily, and people who leave during the day and return must go through a screening process prior to reentry, she said.

Cahill said staff have communicated to residents that these measures have been in place to help ensure their safety, not to exclude them. Some of the residents are living with substance use and mental health disorders. Disrupted routines and more restrictive environments could cause them to experience heightened anxiety and trauma. But the homeless population includes many who are at high-risk of experiencing serious illness if they contract COVID-19, because of age or underlying health conditions.

One person moved into the upstairs room — they refer to it as a “safe space” — on Monday. The individual tested negative from COVID-19 but needed a place to recover from the flu, Cahill said.

Martin said the person was connected to the Carbondale Warming Center by the Jackson County Health Department.

“He couldn’t find a place between Murphysboro and Harrisburg to stay, so he was just sleeping in his truck,” Martin said.

Cahill said that all current residents of the shelter are adults. A family of eight — two adults and six children — had been spending nights at the shelter in mid-March, but they were able to secure a home a few weeks ago, she said.

Though this has been a trying time for many, Cahill said some shelter residents are experiencing positive changes in their lives. Staff has been working with residents to help them find permanent supportive housing options for when the crisis ends. Computers are available for residents to access adult education coursework, and a few are working on their reading skills. Cahill said the plan is to place webcams on the computers so that residents can remotely connect with their counselors at Centerstone and do talk therapy in a private room at the shelter.

Cahill said the center is still in need of donations, especially food and paper products. Hot catered meals, as well as prepared frozen meals, such as meat balls that can be reheated in a crockpot, are ideal. The center is also in need of paper plates and paper towels. Anyone interested in dropping off a donation is encouraged to call Cahill at 618-319-2240.


On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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