'Warming center' gaining support

The long journey toward ending homelessness in York County could be close to moving forward once again, but not in the way many advocates expected a year ago.

Working through the United Way of York County office, organizers are quietly gathering support for what they call a "warming center" that would open this winter on nights when temperatures dip below freezing.

The center is viewed as a temporary solution while the search continues for a permanent shelter that can provide beds as well as space for one-stop social services.

Around this time last year, supporters hoped they were on the verge of securing such a place. Now, they are counting on the center to buy them another year to keep trying.

Advocates say the decision to scale back to a short-term fix reflects the time it takes to get organized behind the complex problem of homelessness. They stress their plans won't be finalized for at least another two weeks, but the Salvation Army building has emerged as the targeted location.

On Monday, the York County Council will vote on committing $23,000 to help with security costs at the Charlotte Avenue facility, Chairman Buddy Motz said.

'A good first step'

Supporters believe the idea represents important progress considering that it would become Rock Hill's second overnight option for homeless men. Two years ago, the county had none. A 14-bed shelter called The Haven opened in 2005 on Archive Street.

Still, a lingering concern is whether the plan goes far enough. Earlier this month, county leaders raised questions even as they voiced support for the effort.

County Councilman Tom Smith wondered aloud whether 36-degree weather feels any more bearable to a homeless person than 32, which is the temperature at which the center would open. Colleague Joe Cox questioned why the size of the facility falls well short of meeting documented needs.

A survey done in February found 375 homeless people in York County, up from 186 last year.

"What we need is a permanent place where we don't have to have that trigger point," Motz said Tuesday. "A year-round shelter would be the ideal. This will be a good first step toward moving in that direction."

The warming center concept has worked well in other cities, including Columbia, United Way officials say. It follows the "Housing First" model, which first provides housing, then addresses other needs such as alcohol treatment and job referrals.

Numbers illustrate larger challenge

Cox's question is particularly relevant given other figures assembled by the United Way.

In York County, emergency shelter providers can house 21 men, 58 women and children, and six families. The beds are located at Lighthouse shelter, The Haven, Pilgrims' Inn, Interfaith Hospitality Network, Safe Passage and Tenderhearts House of Hope.

The long wait for affordable housing across the county stands as one of the root problems of homelessness, United Way officials say.

As of this month, 94 singles or families are on the waiting list for public housing in Rock Hill. The average wait is between six and 12 months.

"That's 300 people that we know of still out there that don't have a place," said Gina Amato, director of emergency services for the local Red Cross chapter. "Most of us hope this whole men's shelter thing will come to some kind of fruition and we'll eventually have something for everyone. It doesn't happen overnight."