Freezing temperatures prompt agencies to make plans for emergency shelter


HANCOCK COUNTY — Every time the thermometer inches below 20 degrees, worry creeps into Jill Ebbert’s heart.

She fears staff and volunteers will arrive to the downtown Greenfield soup kitchen in the morning and find someone, a poor soul awaiting the warmth and hot meal inside, frozen to death on the front stoop.

Ebbert is working with partner agencies from the Hancock County Community Organizations Active in Disasters coalition to train volunteers and establish a protocol for opening a temporary warming center in the county, an emergency arrangement for those without warm shelter to have a place to sleep. Hancock County currently does not have a site designated as a warming center or trained staff to operate one, said Jim Peters, with The Salvation Army of Hancock County, one of the agencies that makes up COAD.

Peters hopes to train at least 20 volunteers to be available to cover shifts on weeknights and have substitutes in case someone is unavailable, he said.

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The American Red Cross will host a free volunteer training session from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Emergency Operations Center, 640 S. Franklin, Greenfield.

Those who participate in the free day of training will learn how to set up an emergency shelter, including establishing the different zones, like a dormitory area, registration and a cafeteria area, said Victoria Eder, a Red Cross disaster program specialist.

The last time nonprofits organized an emergency warming center was in the winter of 2015, when volunteers created a temporary shelter for five nights at Curry’s Chapel, a church northeast of Greenfield, Ebbert said. Some eight people used the emergency shelter then, she said.

But keeping trained volunteers has been an issue, Peters said. Several years ago, a local couple volunteered to man the warming center, parking a camper next to wherever the site was that night; the couple has since moved out of state, he said.

“We haven’t been able to get the staffing put together since then,” Peters said. “It’s not as simple as just opening the building and letting people come in. We have to keep the people in there safe.”

There are several locations around the county the Red Cross has established as emergency shelters in the case of a major emergency, including churches and schools, Eder said. Ebbert hopes local churches will volunteer their spaces for the emergency warming center, which will open very rarely, she said.

It wouldn’t be prudent for an existing agency in the county to spend thousands of dollars remodeling itself into a warming center when it might be needed only a handful of days per year, Ebbert said.

“There just needs to be some place they can get in out of the cold and be OK,” she said.

Here’s how organizers want the process to go: when the weather forecast shows the temperature will grow dangerously cold, volunteers will be ready to transport anyone without shelter from the soup kitchen, 202 E. Main St., Greenfield, to a church or other location offering its site. Those needing shelter will leave the soup kitchen at 7 p.m. and return by 8 a.m. the next day, Ebbert said. Volunteers will spend six-hour shifts manning the makeshift emergency shelter, Peters said.

Several entities refer people without shelter to the COAD, including Love in the Name of Christ of Greater Hancock County and county 911 dispatchers, Peters said.

During a streak of extremely cold weather last week, when temperatures fell to a record low minus-12, COAD leaders hosted an emergency shelter for one night; one person spent the night in a local chapel, Peters said.

Though it happens rarely, organizers with the county COAD want to have volunteers ready to step up and protect the people who would be at risk of freezing to death in bitterly cold temperatures, Peters said.

“It’s strictly an emergency situation,” Ebbert said. “But on the nights it’s needed, it’s very much needed.”

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The American Red Cross will host a free volunteer training to teach people how to run an emergency warming center.

When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 27

Where: Hancock County Emergency Operations Center, 640 S. Franklin, Greenfield.

Those who participate in the training course and exercise must first submit an application at