With autumn just a week old, the people who run Bridging the Gap know that the opening date for the Warming Center is coming, but they’re not exactly sure when.

“It all depends on the weather,” Sarah Miller, administrative director of Bridging the Gap, said. “Historically, it’s been either late November or December. It’s really when the cold fully sets in.”

That’s the uncertainty the nonprofit program of Augusta’s Emmanuel Lutheran Episcopal Church on Eastern Avenue is used to managing.

This year, it has an added layer. As Maine navigates its way through public health measures designed to slow the spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus, the state’s people-serving nonprofits are having to rethink how they carry out their missions.

Courtney Yaeger, executive director of the United Way of Kennebec Valley, said how nonprofits deliver service is changing.

“A number of our partner programs are going to be impacted by this and are already being impacted,” Yaeger said.

United Way of Kennebec Valley has raised about $243,000 so far this year to help nonprofit agencies in the region with both short- and long-term relief, and the bulk of that funding has been distributed. Some of the funding, though, has been reserved for requests that are emerging as the pandemic continues and many involve technology.

“We support two programs at the YMCA related to youth, and they are getting really innovative,” she said.

The fund has paid for technology upgrades to make sure the kids served by those programs are not falling behind in their education, she said.

In addition to the fundraising drive, Yaeger said, the United Way started hosting check-in meetings for the nonprofits that has led to networking and sharing resources among the organizations.

“People stepped up in ways I never dreamed of,” she said.

Spectrum Generations, which runs Meals on Wheels, started preparing and freezing meals in advance to stock up in case they had to close, but had no place to store them, she said. During one of those check-ins, the Snow Pond Center for the Arts volunteered its freezers that were unused because its programs had been canceled.

One of the biggest challenges of nonprofits in the region is that they rely on fundraising events, and many of those have been canceled due to public health concerns, Yaeger said.

“The reality is, the economy is a three-legged stool. There are for-profit businesses, government and nonprofits. We can step up where governments and for-profits either can’t or don’t have the capacity to,” she said.

At Bridging the Gap, which also operates Addie’s Attic Clothing Bank and the Basic Essentials Hygiene Pantry, planning for the winter season is already underway.

“We have every intention of opening the Warming Center in some way, shape or form,” Miller said. “That’s the bottom line.”

The first step is talking with public health officials and conferring with organizers of similar programs across New England, and the next is to be flexible to plan for different scenarios.

“Anything we do will be within CDC guidelines,” she said, referring to the Maine Center for Disease Control. “Of course, that might change, so whatever the guidelines are come December, we’ll be following those.”

The global coronavirus pandemic was declared in mid-March and in short order, businesses, government offices and schools across Maine and the United States were closed to in-person contact.

Normally, the Warming Center is open through the end of March, but it also closed halfway through the month. Miller said that decision was made only after it was clear that people who normally stopped by the Warming Center would be able to stay in the homeless shelter during the day.

Since then, the Hygiene Pantry pivoted to a curbside pickup model for toiletries and the clothing bank was open only on an emergency basis until June, when it reopened following public health guidelines put in place for retail shops.

“We have some practice in how we can creatively tweak things to carry out our mission,” Miller said.

To date, one of those things has been calculating how much space the Warming Center occupies to figure out how many people it can accommodate under current public health restrictions. Another has been thinking about how to do something as simple as serving a cup of coffee.

“On any given day, there could be anywhere from seven to 20 individuals — families, kids, old people,” she said.

Following the current social distancing standard of 6 feet, the center could accommodate 10 people with some reconfiguring of the space.

While it started in 2009 for people who had no other place to take refuge from the cold, it evolved over time to have a more social function. This year, she said, it might have to revert to its original model.

“It’s a challenge to balance health and safety, which is the priority, with the other needs of people and the social connection,” she said. “Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made.”


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