After one week, Middletown warming center closes due to ‘unforeseen staffing circumstances’

City, local churches hope to meet next week to determine next step to address homelessness.

For 19 years, a Middletown church-based homeless shelter served the needs of the unhoused throughout the region.

When Serving Homeless Alternate Lodging Of Middletown (SHALOM) was undecided whether it would open this year after the church where its office is located named a new pastor, the city of Middletown stepped forward and organized a church-based warming center.

But after one week, that center has closed as the city considers a much-debated and expensive topic: How to keep its unhoused population warm and protected during the winter months.

In an email to The Journal-News, Missy Knight, the city’s communications manager, wrote: “Due to unforeseen staffing circumstances, the warming center has been temporarily put on hold this week while the city and faith-based organizations evaluate the organizational measures going forward.”

In response, Bill Fugate, one of the many volunteers who ran SHALOM, said it has no plans to reopen this year. He said SHALOM sheltered the homeless for 17 years without missing a night, but was unable to open the last two years due to health concerns related to COVID-19.

For the last two years, SHALOM volunteers have served breakfast three days a week in the parking lot of First United Methodist, 120 S. Broad St., where its intake office is located, according to Fugate.

Fugate said he plans to meet with local pastors early next week to consider warming center options.

SHALOM operated for 16 weeks a year every winter and was supported by 12 local churches that took turns housing the homeless for one week. The homeless were picked up at the SHALOM offices every morning, driven to the host church where they were fed dinner, slept on cots, provided breakfast, then returned to the SHALOM office the next morning.

The city tried to emulate SHALOM.

It purchased cots for the homeless and helped organize the warming center, Knight said. Earlier, City Manager Paul Lolli said six local churches committed to serve as warming centers and 10 other churches offered support by providing meals and volunteers.

He called the response “very positive.”

But recruiting enough churches and volunteers appeared to be a problem.

Last week, the homeless were housed at Tytus Avenue Church of God.

Pastor Damon Curtis said his church housed between 14 to 21 homeless every night and he was on site except for Thanksgiving when he was out of town. He said there were “some good days,” but the “lack of planning” from the organizers hindered the operations.

He said many of the volunteers didn’t appear to be properly trained and there wasn’t enough overnight support.

Curtis hopes the city and churches can create “a workable solution” to assist the homeless who want help. He said it’s important for those in the ministry to do it for the “right reason, not so we sleep better at night.”

Last winter, when SHALOM said it wouldn’t open, the city of Middletown, at the last minute under then-City Manager Jim Palenick, funded a warming center through a grant that was supposed to operate for three months at a cost of $95,000.

But the warming center, due to contract disputes with the city, closed after 60 days.

Not wanting a repeat of last year, Lolli promised to City Council to address the warming center issue earlier this year.

He directed Police Chief David Birk and Jeri Lewis, the city’s intern special projects coordinator, to work with community churches and other organizations to formulate a plan for a warming center.

Birk estimates there about 200 unhoused people living in Middletown and about 50% are from outside the city. He said many of the homeless come to Middletown from surrounding Butler County communities.

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