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Councilman wants homeless warming center

ESCANABA — How to keep the homeless warm when the pandemic has closed all the city buildings used as warming centers was a hot topic at Thursday’s regular city council meeting.

In the past, the community’s homeless have gathered at the Escanaba Public Library and used the facility as a warming center, but COVID-19 has closed city hall and the library within. The issue of finding a replacement warming location was not originally on the agenda for Thursday night’s regular city council meeting, which was held virtually, but Council Member Tyler DuBord felt it was something the council should address after local charitable organizations approached him with concerns.

“I was reached out (to) by both the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul in regards to concerns (about) our individuals within the city limits that have no place to warm themselves,” he said.

While there are plans in place to provide warming services to the area’s homeless during the week, there isn’t any availability for the Salvation Army or St. Vincent de Paul to provide a warming location on Saturdays and Sundays from around 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. DuBord hoped the Catherine Bonifas Civic Center, which has been closed due to the virus, could be opened as a warming center on those days.

Mayor Marc Tall raised concerns about how the local health department would react if the civic center was reopened.

“The reason we’re closed down is that we are trying to abide by the recommendations of the state and the local health departments. I’m not sure this is going in the right direction with this idea. I’d like some more time to think about this,” he said, before directing City Manager Patrick Jordan to research the idea further and present additional information at the next city council meeting.

Jordan said he was not prepared to make any sort of recommendations about the plan, but said he was worried the civic center would attract too many people if word got out that it was open.

“My heart goes out to people, especially when it gets cold out,” Jordan told the council. “You know, I remember being in Fort Worth, Texas and there’s a lot of homeless people down there, and it got cold in the wintertime at night in Fort Worth, but it’s a lot nicer place to be when you’re homeless than the U.P. But I just don’t think that we’re equipped with the facilities or the personnel or the budget to be a social service agency.”

DuBord didn’t feel the city would be acting in that capacity.

“I don’t look at it as a ‘social service industry.’ I look at it as helping humankind, which is in our city limits, that are therefore homeless or displaced, currently, and if we as a city can’t provide a warming center in a public facility, because right now it is closed, then I’m trying to look at another solution,” he said.

During the meeting, DuBord also expressed he had been in contact with the Delta County Chamber of Commerce to see if a warming center could be established at the U.P. State Fairgrounds, however, the Chamber had requested more information if it were going to partner with the city.

Even if the city was unwilling to create a warming center option for the area’s homeless population, DuBord said he intended to solve the problem somehow.

“My other option, which I probably will throw out to the council until we can come up with maybe something — or not — is I will take the bull by it’s horns, and I will do on my side as a citizen, and work with nonprofit organizations, and I will see if I can with a team, come up with a solution outside the city, if that’s what it comes down to,” he said.

In other business, the council approved two property transfers. The first was a communications tower the city officially transfered to Delta County Central Dispatch. The city had planned to transfer the property at the time of it’s purchase in 2011, but the transfer was never completed.

The second transfer was a property swap near Webster Kindergarten Center. The land the city transfered will be used to create parking and a bus turn around, which is planned to reduce traffic congestion near the school at the beginning and the end of the school day. In exchange, the city will acquire the property with the Webster Wading Pool and Shelter House, which the city has leased for years.

The council also approved an official policy to bring it into compliance with temporary changes to the Open Meetings Act made in response to the pandemic. The policy sets forth the rules for holding virtual meetings and brings the city into compliance with the law and guidance from the Michigan Municipal League.

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