By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
‘Happy are they … who give justice to those who are oppressed, food to those who are hungry, and shelter to those in need,” said Rev. Cynthia Walton Leavitt, pastor of the United Presbyterian “Red Door” Church.
The pastor was speaking Monday, March 8, as a member of the Caring for the Homeless Population Collaboration, founded in 2018 under the auspices of Fox Hospital, on the initiative of Dr. Reg Knight, who chaired Fox’s Ethics Committee.
Pastor Leavitt was leading the Blessing Service where Knight’s goal was reached: Oneonta’s one-of-a-kind Community Warming Station opened at 5 p.m. at 189 Chestnut St.
The first client showed up at 9:15 p.m.
Beginning Monday, and continuing through Sunday, April 11, the Warming Station will be open seven days a week. The first occupant showed up at 9:15 Monday evening, when temperatures would drop overnight to 21 degrees. (The night before the station opened, it dropped to 1.)
“We’re so blessed to have this open,” the pastor said.
Walton Leavitt has been involved since the beginning (and is also involved in the Hunger Coalition of Otsego County), driven by what she sees as a continuing need, evident in “an occasional knock on (her) door.”
Usually, it happens after Catholic Charities or other human service agencies are closed for the day or weekend, she said.
As recently as January, a knock came at the door and “a young man simply asked if I could open the door for him. I’m sorry, no,” she told him. “I would like to help, but I have no way to vet these requests.”
Plus, “I have no sole discretion to grant use of the church building,” she added.
It was that kind of experience that caused Walton Leavitt, Dr. Knight, who saw homeless turned away from the Emergency Room on cold night, and others to look for answers.
Early on, Catholic Charities agreed to be the lead agency, to handle hiring and training of staff. JoAnne Bragonier, Catholic Charities program director, had been pushing for a shelter for 20 years.
Cindy King was appointed Warming Station supervisor, in charge of the facility.
Main Street Baptist Church – its pastor, Rev. Ken Zulkowsky, was also active in the Collaboration since the beginning – “already had a crew to fix it up,” a team that does carpentry and renovations in Central America. Main Street Baptist offered its crew and, under Otego’s Crossroads Inn director Brad Feik, it redid the building at 89 Chestnut.
The building had been vacant for 5-6 years, said Walton Leavitt, and the owner asked for a minimal rent in light of the renovations.
Fundraising was done separately, fearful that Catholic Charities donors might simply take from Peter to pay Paul. And in the end, $60,000 was raised toward the $150,000 needed for the whole season, the pastor said.
According to Walton Leavitt, all the seed money was local. However, the State of New York will reimburse the Warming Station sponsors for any night that temperatures drop under 32 degrees, (or wind chill goes below 32).
“We didn’t make our initial goal,” said the pastor. “But as we got later in the season, we didn’t need quite as much money, because it wouldn’t be open too long.”
Under 32 or not, the Warming Station will be open until mid-April “seven days a week,” said Walton Leavitt. “How can you hire staff when you’re only open intermittently.”