William, who has been homeless for eight years, grabbed a magic marker and gladly made a sidewalk sign advertising a pop-up warming shelter in Holyoke on January 26. And he was happy when people began walking in at 5:00 p.m. as the sun was setting on one of the coldest days of the year.
“My brother and I are staying here tonight, and I want others to stay here too,” he said. “I want to help in any way I can.”
In an agreement between the City of Holyoke and the Mount Tom Masonic Lodge on Chestnut Street, the lodge building was open overnights on January 21 and 22 in anticipation of a dangerously cold weekend—and then again on January 26, when temperatures dipped below zero.
Theresa Nicholson, director, Diversion, Shelter, and Housing at CHD, was part of the team that helped organize the pop-up shelter after extensive community outreach efforts by Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia. A collaboration involving the city’s Emergency Management Department, OneHolyoke CDC, the Holyoke Fire Department, and CHD sprang into action and supported the lodge to provide a warm space, PPE, dry clothing, water, food, coffee, and bedding.
“The recent COVID surge has put a stress on emergency services in the area, including hospitals,” said Nicholson. “We’re trying to avoid people going to emergency rooms with hypothermia and frostbite.”
The temporary shelter served 14 people on January 21, had 21 guests on January 22, and 23 people stayed overnight January 26.
The initiative came about in short order after OneHolyoke CDC Executive Director Michael Moriarty, knowing that CHD helps thousands of people with both emergency and long-term housing solutions every year, consulted with Nicholson on the pop-up warming center possibility. Nicholson, in turn, called Marisabel Perez, field operations manager for CHD’s Diversion, Shelter, and Housing program. Perez, who recruited people to staff the pop-up shelter, knew that existing Holyoke homeless shelters have been overwhelmed lately because of the frigid weather. “We also knew for a fact that there were homeless individuals staying along the river or sleeping on the streets at night,” she said.
Perez noted the “outpouring of love from the community.” Capri Pizza in Holyoke furnished food, as did a church in Springfield: Iglesia Rescantando Las Ovegas Peridadas. A volunteer gave the homeless staying at the shelter haircuts. Ocean State Job Lot provided a dozen comforters. A robust network of Holyoke citizens, especially the Holyoke Police, got the word out to those who didn’t have a place to stay.
“We even had an employment specialist who worked on resumes with folks that are interested in getting back to work,” said Nicholson. Moriarty called the effort “an incredible on-the-fly community collaboration.”
Mayor Garcia said he is proud of the “urgency and empathy the community has shown,” especially the Masonic Lodge. “This provides an adequate short-term solution as we explore more options for the long term,” he said.
Nicholson had high praise for Mayor Garcia for acting so quickly when it was apparent from forecasts that the temperature, combined with the wind chill, posed a serious threat to those with no place to stay. “The mayor is really committed to making sure no one is outside overnight when it’s freezing,” she said. “We’re trying to find ways keep this kind of thing going.”