AUGUSTA — The temperature had barely cracked double digits Monday morning when the city’s warming center opened its doors for the season.
The new director, Alexander Blackstone, and a few volunteers, set up a large coffee maker and a heater for tea on a particle board folding table in one of the largest rooms.
The Augusta Community Warming Center, on Front Street along the Kennebec River, provides a place for individuals and families to congregate from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week, so they can avoid the cold during the winter. It will stay open through March.
Many visitors during the week and on Saturdays take advantage of the Bread of Life Ministries Soup Kitchen a short walk away. On Sundays, the center provides meals from organizations, churches and companies.
Adrien Patenaude, 23, sat in the entry room of the center Monday afternoon with a cup of coffee in his hands. He said he’s been homeless for 21 months and most recently stayed with a friend in Augusta.
Patenaude, originally from the Skowhegan area, said he needed a ride to Waterville by Tuesday morning to make an appointment at the Department of Health & Human Services to visit his son,who’s about 2 years old and who he said is in state custody.
Patenaude’s been in and out of jail and prison for probation violations and burglary and theft charges, most recently for violating probation by smoking marijuana, he said.
“My address has been a tent for, I don’t know, six or nine months,” Patenaude said, with his backpack and a plastic grocery bag tied to its handle at his feet.
His goal is to find a permanent address so he can regain custody of his son. Right now, he’s trying to get in the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville, but he said there haven’t been any beds available to him.
Last week the shelter, along with others in the area, reported significant increases in demand because of the falling temperatures. Betty Palmer, executive director of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, told the Morning Sentinel on Friday that she expected the 50-bed shelter to be at or over capacity that night. The Bread of Life Ministries Homeless Shelter in Augusta is routinely at capacity as well.
About a dozen visitors, including volunteers who stay there all day, were at the warming center early afternoon on Monday.
Some people will spend the day at the warming center to make their heating fuel last longer, while others come for the social aspect, Blackstone said. Some, like Patenaude, are homeless, and the center provides an alternative to being outside in the cold.
The center, in its fifth year, is primarily funded by the United Way of Kennebec Valley, but other organizations, as well as churches, businesses and the city of Augusta, support it through various kinds of donations.
It costs a little more than $15,000 each year to pay for rent and a staffer for seven days a week, according to Rob Gordon, executive director of the United Way of Kennebec Valley. Most of the cost is covered by revenue from electronic waste drop-off events held by the organization, as well as funding from MaineGeneral Health and donors, he said. It’s mostly administered by the Green Street United Methodist Church in Augusta.
The organization is still raising money for this year, Gordon said.
“We’re not worried about not being able to fund it, but we know we’ve got to raise a little more to keep it open through March,” he said.
The last couple of years people have brought up the idea of keeping it open longer or year round, but Gordon said it’s unlikely his organization would be the one to expand it.
The United Way of Kennebec Valley, which raises funds for social program in its annual campaign, only started running the center because it had facilitated discussions about ways to help the homeless population, Gordon said.
“We started with one basic value, and that is no one should be cold, alone and on the street,” he said.
It now also provides a support system for its visitors, Gordon said. The center also has private rooms in that back for families and has a supply of donated clothes for people in need. Last year, its busiest day saw 55 visitors, according to Gordon.
On Monday, about a half dozen people played card games with Blackstone after lunch, but not Patenaude. He was busy trying to find a way to Waterville to be able to make his DHHS meeting.
Patenaude said his only significant job experience is seasonal work at Central Maine Wreath in Skowhegan. The three weeks of work this fall allowed him to make enough money to buy birthday and Christmas gifts for his son and 6-year-old daughter, who lives with a different mother.
He needs a job, but he said his lack of work experience and “lengthy criminal history” make finding one difficult. Still, he said losing so much has taught him to appreciate smaller victories life.
“A nice hot cup of coffee on a cold day,” he said, lifting up the plastic foam cup.