Agape warming center fills void for people without heat

WARMING CENTER — Agape staff member Tiffany Allison arranges sleeping supplies on a cot in the overnight warming center set up by Agape in its food pantry lobby. The nonprofit ran overnight shelter services during the bitterly cold winter weather over the last week. Adam Rollins photo.
Adam Rollins
Staff Writer

During the week-long temperature plummet that just gripped the region, the nonprofit Agape food pantry opened an overnight warming center for people who don’t have shelter or heat. 

The pantry, which is located off of Highway W in Warrenton, had its lobby transformed for nearly a week into an emergency shelter with sleeping areas and supplies. Agape Executive Director Michelle Bernth said staff quickly assembled the supplies and plans for the overnight shelter when the period of deadly cold temperatures was forecast last week. Bernth said no other overnight warming shelters are available in Warren County.

“The temperatures we have going on are extremely low ... and can be  deadly to people who are spending the night outside,” Bernth said. “In order to help prevent deaths of people in this community, we felt it was important to quickly put together a warming center we could open to the community.”

In the span of two days, Agape purchased cots, pillows and blankets for as many as 30 people, along with a stock of easy-to-make food. The nonprofit also had to quickly add the new program to its insurance policy, which Bernth said can be one of the biggest obstacles to getting a warming shelter open.

This was the first year Agape was able to offer a warming shelter, thanks to its move to a much larger building in 2020. Although the service was put together on short notice, staff did what they could to provide a comfortable situation for anyone who came in, Bernth said.

Staffing the overnight warming center was probably the greatest challenge for Agape, even more than the quick setup. A small group of staff, including Bernth, stayed each night and then returned to their work at the pantry the next day.

“This is part of the deal with running a nonprofit with a small staff. You have to do what needs to be done, and you don’t have very many people to do it with,” Bernth commented.

Bernth said on Tuesday that a total of 13 people had used the overnight warming center. Some received additional assistance, such as arrangements for a temporary stay in a motel.

“We’ve had a lot of situations we hadn’t really counted on, that we had to find solutions to. ... We had one guy who had three big dogs with him,” Bernth commented. “We learned a lot.”

With this first experience under its belt, Agape can offer the warming shelter again when necessary, likely with some improvements. The most important change would be to have more volunteers for next year, potentially recruited from local churches and community groups.

“That would be a really tangible way that people can get involved and really make a difference for the people who are experiencing homelessness in this community,” Bernth said.

She added that two other forms of support Agape could use are a larger space and some monetary donations. The lobby at the food pantry isn’t large enough to house more than a few people comfortably, so Agape is hoping to find a community partner with a larger space the next time this is a need. And because the nonprofit didn’t expect to spend money on the supplies and costs for a warming shelter, Bernth said Agape is open to donations to help recover that cost or go toward future emergency needs.

For current information about what services are available, go online to the Agape Facebook page. You can also call the pantry during business hours at 636-456-4645.


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