Blount Countians suffering from homelessness will have a safe haven in tonight’s frigid temperatures.

The warming shelter at First Baptist Church of Maryville will open its life center doors to those in need beginning at 7 p.m., Dec. 1. Temperatures are expected to drop to as low as 21 degrees early Wednesday.

The center opens when temperatures hit 25 degrees or below. People are welcome in the shelter from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m.

While at the FBC Maryville, those seeking shelter will receive a cot and bedding, two warm meals and access to a shower.

“These guys have had a rough year this year,” shelter organizer and Chilhowee Baptist Center Director Rick Myers said about those suffering from homelessness. “They didn’t have anywhere they could go day or night, and they suffered through the summer. It really took a toll on the ones who I’ve met. Any little bit of shelter they can find, they’re looking for.”

Organizers weren’t sure that a warming shelter was possible during COVID-19, but on Saturday, they received the go-ahead from First Baptist.

“They’re good people over there,” Phil Hoffman, board chair for Family Promise Blount County, said about organizers at First Baptist. “They’re doing everything they can to try to help. They just had to put their heads together.”

To protect both volunteers and shelter seekers, volunteers will enforce social distancing and the wearing of masks for all who enter.

“We’re going to insist on washing hands,” Hoffman said. “Rather than having them go through a buffet line, we’re going to serve them with paper plates and plastic utensils just to keep things as clean as possible for everybody.”

Because of the pandemic, volunteers have been hard to come by, Hoffman said. Many of the past shelter volunteers have been elderly and more susceptible to the dangerous effects of COVID-19.

“The problem has been two-fold. Normally, we have the month of December to pull this off because we usually have warm Decembers, and also we normally have a little more notice as to whether we’re going to be doing this or now,” Hoffman said.

The early cold and late notice have created a shortage in volunteers. Many are still needed to keep the shelter open for the rest of the cold season.

This is the warming shelter’s third year in operation. It functions financially through a one-time United Way of Blount County grant.

Lisa Atkinson, UWBC community resource consultant, said United Way was determined not to lose the momentum the warming center has built over the past three years.

“It’s just one of those things that’s always been a need and because we’ve been able to do it in the past, we wanted to continue to do it,” Atkinson said. “With everything else this year with COVID, you just have to be a little flexible and a little fluid and just kind of see how things go and hope for the best.”

Those interested in volunteering at the warming shelter tonight or any other cold night this season can contact uwbc@unit

Follow @sshreports on Twitter for more from county government reporter Shelby Harris.

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