Winter is an especially difficult time of year for unhoused South Carolinians. As temperatures dip below freezing throughout the season, the threat of hypothermia is ever-present. That’s why several nonprofits in the Midlands have forged together each winter since 2014 to sponsor Columbia’s Inclement Weather Center (IWC), open from November 1 to March 31 on nights when the temperature is 40 degrees or below. The City of Columbia contracts with The United Way to run the center, in partnership with Salvation Army and Transitions, a homeless shelter for adults in the Columbia area.
“We serve about a hundred or so unduplicated folks per year,” said Jennifer Moore, Senior Director of the Financial Stability Council for the United Way of the Midlands, “but that ends up being over about 650 nights of shelter when you multiply by folks who come multiple times.”
On nights when the National Weather Service forecasts temperatures at or below 40 degrees, IWC makes a shuttle available downtown to transport anyone seeking shelter to the center’s location on Calhoun Road. In addition to a warm bed, the clientele are also provided a hot dinner and breakfast by volunteers from the Salvation Army.
While the primary function of the Center is to provide shelter to vulnerable individuals during cold nights like those quantified by Moore, the Inclement Weather Center has also proved to be a valuable resource during other emergency weather situations. In fact, in October 2015, a month before the center was scheduled to open its doors for the year, the partner organizations of the IWC were called into action to provide shelter when the Midlands experienced massive flooding. Transitions CEO Craig Currey remembers that hectic weekend well.
“[The city] realized this is going to be four days of solid rain, and the homeless folks really ought to have a place to go to get out of the rain,” Currey said.
However, with the planned opening of the IWC still a month away, the center’s seasonal staff had yet to be hired, so regular Transitions staff jumped into action. The IWC opened shortly after the partner organizations were notified on Friday, October 2, and remained open until concern mounted that the IWC itself would flood.
“Sunday, the flooding started to get so bad at that point; they were actually worried because the Inclement Weather Center is down by the river. And of course at that point the city decided ‘we can’t leave folks here, because the center may flood itself,’” said Currey.
That’s when the city made the decision that the center would have to be evacuated. By Monday, the Inclement Weather Center’s 108 occupants had been transferred to beds in Transitions’ Day Center. When added to the 260 regular Transitions residents, this made for quite a crowd, but with the help of IWC partners Salvation Army and United Way, Transitions was able to provide shelter, food, and running water.
“We knew by Tuesday-ish, ‘Okay, this is gonna work. It’s not gonna be pretty, but it’s gonna work,” Currey said. Work it did; they successfully sheltered 100-plus additional homeless and displaced individuals until the floodwaters subsided, and continued to shelter some who had lost their homes and apartments to the flood until they got back on their feet.
That’s not the only time the IWC has had to leap into emergency mode. Almost exactly a year later, the center again opened early to welcome individuals fleeing flooding created by Hurricane Matthew, and the partners again opened Transitions’ facilities for emergency shelter from Hurricane Irma’s dangerous winds this year. According to Moore, preparing for these crisis situations has also helped the center with its day-to-day mission: keeping South Carolinians off of cold streets. And Moore says they’re getting better every year at addressing the deeper needs of those they serve.
“We want a safe place during the winter conditions for folks to stay,” she said, “but ultimately we want them in permanent housing.”
The Inclement Weather Center accepts volunteers throughout the season to serve meals, distribute linens, provide activities and contribute various other services. Volunteer opportunities are available through the United Way Volunteer Center, the Salvation Army website and the Transitions Charities & Causes page on the Eventbrite app.