Kristi Johnson, Outreach Center Director for The Connecting Grounds, speaks with reporter Jackie Rehwald about the cold weather shelter situation in Springfield. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Even though the temperature was a warm 75 degrees Thursday afternoon, Kristi Johnson asked the elderly unsheltered man walking out of the Connecting Grounds Outreach Center if he had a heavy coat and blanket. 

The man shrugged and said he’d be fine, but Johnson persisted. 

“It’s going to seem like a very bitter change,” she warned him of the coming cold weather. “You need a coat. The temperature is going to drop 40 degrees.”

The Connecting Grounds is a church that helps Springfield’s unsheltered community. Johnson is the director of the Outreach Center at 3000 W. Chestnut Expy.

The Outreach Center was bustling Thursday, with volunteers sorting and handing out donated coats, blankets and hats — anything to help unsheltered people stay warm. Temperatures will drop Friday night into the mid-20s.

Cold weather shelters to open, still no meal site

With the forecast calling for below freezing overnight temperatures well into next week, volunteers and service providers all over Springfield are preparing to open the Crisis Cold Weather Shelter sites for Springfield’s unsheltered community.

The cold weather shelter sites are housed inside church buildings throughout the community and are staffed primarily with volunteers. The sites open up on nights when the overnight temperature is predicted to be 32 degrees or colder. 

But one major issue remains unsolved, according to information provided at the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness board meeting on Wednesday. There is no indoor location for the unsheltered folks to go in the evenings before the shelters open — a place where an evening meal could be served by volunteers and where buses would come to transport people to the shelter sites. 

“We are pretty desperate,” Michelle Garand, with Community Partnership of the Ozarks, told the board members and service providers attending the meeting via Zoom. “We are a little stuck. But it will happen. It has to happen because we have got to be able to protect people from the cold weather.”

A board at The Connecting Grounds Outreach Center gives patrons information. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Last year, the Veterans Coming Home Center, a daytime drop-in center in downtown, stayed open a few hours later and served as the evening meal and pick-up location on nights the shelters were open. The Vets Center was able to cover this additional cost last winter thanks to some funding from the city. That funding source is not available to the city this winter, Garand said. 

What type of building is needed for meals, pick-up

A building large enough for about 250 people and located near downtown Springfield is what’s needed, Garand said. The Crisis Cold Weather Shelter coordinator would be the person to open and lock up the building on nights when the shelters are open. 

Ideally, the building would be within about half a mile from the Veterans Coming Home Center at 806 N. Jefferson Ave., so people could walk there when the day center closes at 5 p.m.

A crowd gathers on a March 2022 morning outside the Veterans Coming Home Center, a drop-in day shelter for homeless men and women. The center is on Jefferson Avenue near Chestnut Expressway in downtown Springfield.

The building needs to be available to open seven days a week 5 to 8 p.m. It would not need to have a kitchen because the volunteers who provide meals are able to prepare the food and bring it, ready-to-serve. 

“It wouldn’t need heat,” an emotional Garand said during the board meeting. “We just need a warehouse, a space so people can come in out of the elements. All we are trying to do is keep people warm.”

At this time, there are no funds available to pay rent — so the building also needs a compassionate owner.  

“It’s a big ask,” she said, adding that Community Partnership of the Ozarks will provide an insurance rider for the building. “We have no money.”

Garand expressed frustration because the cold weather shelter committee had all the details lined out for this winter’s shelter sites by early October. Then on Oct. 17, they learned the Veterans Coming Home Center would not stay open past 5 on nights shelters were open. 

“The floor has kind of dropped out from under us,” she said. She later told the Springfield Daily Citizen that getting the news so late in the year was “deflating” to everyone who had worked so hard to organize this winter’s shelter program. 

November is ‘covered-ish

Garand explained to the Alliance board members on Wednesday that November is “covered-ish.”

Michelle Garand is the Vice President of Affordable Housing and Homeless Prevention at Community Partnership of the Ozarks. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

As they have been for years, evening meals will be provided by different groups including the Gathering Friends, a grassroots group of volunteers who have been helping the homeless community in Springfield for several years. 

In recent months, the evening meals have been served inside churches and on church parking lots. 

Those churches have agreed to allow evening meals to continue to be served on their parking lots through the month of November. These sites will also be the pick-up sites to transport folks to the shelters. 

Meals will be served at 5:30 p.m. and the shelters are opening an hour earlier — at least until a building is found — this winter at 7 p.m. Transportation via City Utilities buses and CPO’s bus will begin around 6:30 p.m.

But this temporary solution is not ideal for several reasons, including the fact that several of these meal sites are outdoors and offer no protection from rain or snow. And not having one consistent location will likely make communication difficult and confusing. 

The Connecting Grounds, a church and outreach group that is dedicated to helping the unsheltered community, created an app that will send notifications telling people where to go for an evening meal and for transportation to the shelters on nights when the shelters are open. 

Garand encouraged the board members and service providers at Wednesday’s meeting to download the app, which is called ShelterSGF, in case their organization gets calls from the public asking where to go to get taken to a cold weather shelter. Find more information about the ShelterSGF app here

Lack of volunteers may mean some sites not open

The Crisis Cold Weather Shelter program is critically low on volunteers going into this winter season.

There are a few different volunteer opportunities available.

Each shelter site needs two people who can stay overnight and take turns sleeping. These volunteers are typically there from about 7 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.

Hospitality volunteers are there from 6 to 9 p.m. They arrive before guests to get everything ready and then help welcome guests. 

In the morning, someone is needed to visit each of the sites and gather any dirty laundry to drop off at Enterprise Laundry, which free services for the program.

Sanitation volunteers are needed to visit the sites in the mornings to clean and sanitize. Lisa Landrigan, a shelter coordinator, said these volunteers can be done in about an hour and a half.

Find more information about how to volunteer or support the crisis cold weather shelter program on the Community Partnership of the Ozarks website. You can also email the program coordinator Lisa Landrigan at llandrigan@cpozarks.org.

Here are the crisis cold weather shelter locations and capacity for this year:

  • East Sunshine Church of Christ can have up to 50 men. 
  • Grace United Methodist Church can have up to 20 women.
  • Asbury United Methodist Church can have up to 35 individuals and pets. 
  • Unity of Springfield Church can have up to 22 individuals.
  • Sacred Heart Catholic Church can have up to 25 men.  
  • Revive 66 Campground has 50 tiny campers that are open to individuals and their pets. These are normally $10 to rent, but are free on nights when the crisis cold weather shelters open. 
  • The Connecting Grounds is using its church building as an overnight shelter for families every night through April regardless of the temperature.

Other sites are set to open after Jan. 1, 2023.

Cots are set up at the crisis cold weather shelter inside Unity of Springfield.
This is what Unity of Springfield’s crisis cold weather shelter looked like before guests arrived last year. (Photo: Lisa Landrigan)

Temporary meal and pick-up locations through November

On nights when the cold weather shelters are open, arrive by 5:30 p.m. for a meal and free transportation to a shelter:

  • The meal and transportation pick-up site this Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be Pitts Chapel, 600 N. Benton Ave.

Starting Nov. 14, the November meal sites follow this schedule:

  • Monday: Grace United Methodist Church, 600 S. Jefferson Ave.
  • Tuesday: Central Christian Church, 1475 N. Washington Ave.
  • Wednesday: Grace United Methodist Church
  • Thursday: pending
  • Friday: Pitts Chapel
  • Saturday: Freeway Ministries, 1041 W. Kearney St.
  • Sunday: Eben Eze Romanian Assembly, 2233 N. East Ave.

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers housing, homelessness, domestic violence and early childhood, among other public affairs issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald