It’s December, and winter is quickly approaching. Although Southwestern Pennsylvania has seen little snow so far, freezing temperatures are bound to come and Greene County has a backup plan so residents can stay warm on the colder nights.
“Warm Nights – 25 Degrees and below” is entering its fifth year providing shelter for the homeless and those experiencing issues with their heat as the temperature drops.
The program is run by Greene County Human Services with help from United Way, Salvation Army, Washington Health Systems Greene and Waynesburg University, as well as individual volunteers. The goal is to provide free overnight shelter for a family or individual on extremely cold nights – more specifically, when temperatures are below 25 degrees from November through March.
“Warm Nights” started in 2014, during a conversation between former United Way executive director Barbara Wise and Greene County Human Services board treasurer Mark Carlson. After working on building disaster relief shelters in the area, the duo began working to find housing solutions for homeless residents.
“That’s really how it started. Mark and I looked at each other and said, ‘What can we do now? We know we can do more,’” Wise said.
Amy Switalski, Greene County Housing Services and Family Resources director, said the program started right after the Snow Armageddon, when many individuals across the county didn’t have heat after a bad storm because the power was out.
“The county did respond in a manner where there were warming centers and places like that, but, as a collaborative, we came together and [thought], ‘We need something for those individuals,’” she explained.
The group started looking at what other counties were doing to create a solution that worked for Greene. During the first year, the program used four different locations – one each month – including local churches and a building on the Greene County Fairgrounds.
In 2016, the Commissioners donated a county building, which is now the sole shelter used in the program. The house has a kitchen, dining and living room, bathroom and a second floor area that serves as a bedroom. While the appliances were paid for by the county, all furniture was donated by volunteers.
Switalski explained the place is not only for homeless people.
“We don’t want someone putting themselves in danger because their house doesn’t have heat,” she said. “This is not what would be used for a blizzard, this is use in a case any resident in Greene County would be without heat.”
The shelter has cots and bedding, as well as hot showers and some non-perishable supplies. Children and families are welcome and pets can be housed at the Greene County Humane Society upon request.
“Say, if a senior’s furnace would go out or even a mom with their kid, the fuel truck was supposed to deliver that day and it didn’t come,” Switalski continued. “Whatever the reason is, they don’t have to be homeless, they just needed a place to sleep.”
To use the house, residents have to register by 4 p.m. by calling 211 or SPHS Crisis Line at 1-800-417-9460. If no one else is using the place, guests will be directed meet a volunteer at the location between 7 and 10 p.m. They can stay until 7 a.m. the next morning.
Switalski highlighted that the county will work with families and individuals to fulfill their needs in case they need transportation or if the place is already occupied. If they miss the 4 p.m. deadline, they can contact the Waynesburg Borough Police Department at 724-627-8113.
Moreover, for those who have a long-term issue, Housing Services will work to provide support after they leave the house.
“They have to be out of the house by 7 but that doesn’t mean that we send them home to a cold place or back on the street in the middle of a snow storm,” Switalksi said. “If they have a long-term issue, we do meet with them the next day to see if we can solve the problem.”