Long-time collaborators join forces to provide hot meals and shelter for homeless people
It’s cold out there. And although forecasters predict a warmer than usual winter for the Northeast this year, homeless people living outside will still surely need cover from the elements. In an effort to shelter as many people as possible this season, the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and the Rescue Mission of Trenton joined forces Sunday to launch the Trenton Collaborative Warming Center – a 4,000 square-foot space where up to 60 people can find respite from the cold.
“We are providing for more people who might not have had any place to go this winter,” said TASK Executive Director Joyce E. Campbell who worked alongside Rescue Mission of Trenton CEO Mary Gay Abbott-Young to open the center before the deep of winter. “The Rescue Mission of Trenton will provide the space and we will provide breakfast, lunch, dinner and down the road, counseling. Ultimately, I hope we can both save some lives.”
The warming center is located at 100 Carroll Street – the former site of the Rescue Mission of Trenton’s well-known thrift shop. Inside, the reconfigured space will expand the adjacent existing emergency shelter while relocating the thrift shop to another site on the organization’s property. The added space is outfitted with safety shields and furniture, including seating for dining. Three additional restrooms are currently being installed as well. To give the immense room some warmth, artwork created by TASK patrons hangs from the walls.
In March, the COVID-19 pandemic closed numerous indoor spaces that the unsheltered frequented to get out of the elements. Although some remained open, they were challenged by social distancing restrictions that drastically reduced their capacity. Before the pandemic, the Rescue Mission of Trenton and TASK could give relief to as many as 320 people, combined. The Rescue Mission of Trenton could house up to 200 people in its emergency shelter and the soup kitchen could accommodate 120 diners for each sit-down meal. But now, the Rescue Mission of Trenton’s capacity is decreased by nearly 50 percent while TASK only serves meals to-go. The soup kitchen has also closed its dining room and suspended other activities to help slow the coronavirus’ spread. This week as the temperatures dropped into the 30s, many visitors came to the new warming center. With restrictions still in place amid falling outside temperatures, organizers expect a steady flow of patrons.
“We know that there will be at least as many individuals experiencing homelessness this year as last – probably more,” said Abbott-Young. “This project started with recognizing that essential need. We knew we had to do something different this year since the pandemic prevented both organizations from using our space the way we had during previous winters. By collaborating, we were able to create a solution. Still, of course, it is only occurring because of the compassion and generosity of our community.”
As both organizations share some of the same populations, including the homeless, the collaboration “just made sense,” Campbell added. The project, one of many joint ventures between the two, is chiefly funded by a $150,000 COVID-19 relief grant from the Princeton Area Community Foundation. The Mercer County Department of Human Services will also provide financial support. The county recently received state funding under New Jersey’s Code Blue Alert law. The legislation directs municipalities to make shelters or warming centers available at libraries, community centers or municipal buildings when temperatures drop below freezing with precipitation or to 25 degrees without precipitation for more than two hours, according to the county agency’s website.
The Rescue Mission of Trenton is one of 16 partnerships the soup kitchen has with local groups to feed people experiencing hunger and food insecurity throughout the city and its surrounding suburbs. Many TASK patrons have enjoyed a meal at the soup kitchen before retiring to the shelter for the night. Mercer County has over 550 homeless people – 55 percent of which live in Trenton. Nearly 30 percent of Trenton’s 300 homeless people are unsheltered, according to 2020 Point-in-Time Count. The warming center will be open 24-hours a day, seven days a week. For the county, the collaboration helps provide continuity during uncertain times.
“The Rescue Mission of Trenton and TASK each bring something special to our community,” said Marygrace Billek, director of county human services. “…The way they have risen to the challenges presented by this pandemic is truly inspiring. Those challenges are our community’s challenges and they have responded with what is needed – which is a collective solution.”