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Warming centers set up across Maine in preparation for frigid cold

Winter Weather
Robert F. Bukaty
A beach walker is bundled for the cold in single digit temperatures Fahrenheit, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in South Portland, Maine.

The Maine Emergency Management Agency reports that 68 warming centers across the state will be open for residents to escape the dangerous cold and wind chills this weekend. Margaret Cushing of the Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency says towns are very concerned, not only for unhoused residents but also for the elderly or families whose older homes are not well heated.

"It's so important for people to understand that this is dangerous and people die of hypothermia all the time," Cushing says. "We hear from first responders all the time about the elderly or people that they find that are so hypothermic that they can't recover."

Cushing says it's important to have a plan in place. Officials also say not to use a kitchen stove or oven to stay warm, and to only use space heaters intended for indoor use and to follow safety instructions.

Portland will open an additional overnight shelter this weekend at the Salvation Army's gymnasium at 297 Cumberland Avenue for residents to get out of the cold. Spokesman Jessica Grondin says two city shelters already in operation can accommodate 950 people, but the city wanted additional capacity given the brutal cold and wind chills arriving Friday.

"We really wanted to provide something overnight given how extreme the weather is going to be," Grondin says. "Staff have been working since the beginning of this week to piece together something to offer and, thankfully, we were able to arrange something with the Salvation Army. We've had a number of staff offer to work extra shifts so we could staff it."

The temporary shelter will be open Friday and Saturday from 3 p.m. to 8 a.m. the following morning. Daytime warming spaces at the Portland Public Library at Monument Square will open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. The First Parish Church on Congress Street will open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. both Friday and Saturday.

The Cities of Lewiston and Auburn are coordinating warming centers that will be open 24 hours a day starting Friday. The Auburn Family Development Center at 100 Valerie Circle will be open from 4 p.m. Friday until Noon on Sunday, with bus service from the YMCA.

Nancy Craig of the Calvary United Methodist Church says an overnight warming space will also be available in the church basement. "We have a ground floor room with spacing that people can lay down on. Most people have things to sleep with, sleeping bags. But we have blankets for those that don't," she says.

Craig says the overnight space is open from midnight to 8 a.m. seven days a week through March. And she coordinates the Calvary City Mission at the church that is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. to provide meals and warmth. Craig says the two warming spaces are serving 25 to 40 people currently, and the number of unhoused residents coming for help is growing as harsh winter weather sets in.

The City of Bangor has been coordinating several day warming centers and overnight shelters as well. Debbie Laurie, the city manager, says there is capacity for about 80 people every night and not every space has been used so far this winter. Laurie says police and other municipal workers will be checking every person they see outside this weekend to ensure they have access to a warm place to rest.

"People may be hesitant at 5 o'clock Friday night but maybe at 9 o'clock they've changed their mind as the weather worsens," Laurie says. "We'll be out periodically checking throughout Friday and Saturday to make sure if an individual changes their mind there's an opportunity to get them into warmth."

Laurie says all of the warming centers and shelters have expanded offerings for this weekend to avoid gaps in coverage day or night. And she says barriers to getting someone into shelter, such as transportation, are being addressed.

Visit the Maine Emergency Management Agency website for a list of warming shelters, or to call 211 to find a warming shelter near you.