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Seniors concerned over senior center warming center use; councillors suggest finding alternative site

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  A small crowd of angry seniors turned out for this week’s City Council meeting to hear a presentation on the city’s plan to open an emergency warming center on the second floor of the Rosetti-Cowan Senior Center. Seniors came with questions and concerns about health and safety, which Mayor Brian Arrigo and Chief of Health and Human Services Lauren Buck tried to answer.

  Arrigo explained that the senior center was selected as a site for the warming center because it has been established as the city’s official emergency center. It has been operating as an emergency center open during storms and freezing cold spells. Arrigo said the plan is to make the warming center service professional and consistent.

  “We’re looking to provide a service that we’ve always provided in that space, but to do it more professionally,” said Arrigo.

  “We will make sure there is no impact to senior center operations. There will be cleaning crews and on-site security,” said Arrigo, who added, “If people feel uncomfortable and it doesn’t work, we’ll scrap the program.”

  But that did little to appease seniors, who feel they are losing the only place in the city where they feel safe and secure and where they are not at risk for Covid and other diseases. Newly elected City Council President Patrick Keefe had to bang his gavel several times to call for order among the audience members who continued to call out questions about the program.

  One woman asked if those using the warming center will need to show proof that they’ve been vaccinated. “We’re a vulnerable group to have people at the senior center who aren’t vaccinated,” she said.

  “We have people with underlying conditions. We care about the homeless, but we were hoping they could have some other place where there’s not seniors. I don’t know these people,” she said.

  Buck explained that Housing Families, a large nonprofit agency that will be managing the warming center, will be cleaning and disinfecting the center every morning. They will also monitor people using the center and use rapid Covid tests when they feel someone may present a risk of spreading the virus. Buck also reminded seniors that they have more of a risk of contracting covid at supermarkets, doctors’ offices and other indoor public environments.

  Reservoir Avenue resident Frank Schettino questioned the hours of the center, which will be 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. “What do we do after that?” asked Schettino. “We don’t want to put them out in the cold again. My gut feeling is they are going to be putting tents outside.”

  Schettino also said seniors feel the center would never be completely cleaned.

  “If we don’t do something we’re going to lose a lot of people at the elderly center,” added Schettino. “That’s all we have left. We have nothing against the homeless – we just wish it was another location.”

  Although Arrigo and Buck stressed the warming center is not a shelter and will not have beds or cots, and no food will be served, Senior Center member Joann Woods said people are sleeping there at night. Woods suggested that the city find somewhere other than the senior center for the program.

  Several city councillors also felt the city should look at different sites.

  “We can make a warming center wherever we want. This is our city; we can put it wherever we want. I don’t understand why we’re so reluctant to look at an alternative site,” said Councillor-at-Large Dan Rizzo, who made a motion that the city look at the feasibility of other sites. Rizzo suggested the police station community room and the American Legion as possible options. The council approved that motion. The council also called for the city to hold another forum with seniors to share more information about the program.

  Councillor-at-Large Marc Silvestri made a passionate statement in favor of the warming center. Silvestri worked with homeless people on the emergency response team during the height of pandemic. He told the audience they are not bad people and they are only looking for a place to stay warm and stay alive. Silvestri said he was not afraid of losing votes for his support of a program meant to keep people from dying in the streets of exposure.

  Councillor-at-Large Anthony Zambuto called the warming center program a “noble goal” but added that he would like to see better communication between the city and the seniors about the center. “It’s the right thing to do although I might have wanted it to be in a different place,” said Zambuto.

  Councillor-at-Large Gerry Visconti said it is important to keep in mind that the program is to provide a temporary shelter. Visconti and other councillors felt that if seniors see the program up and running for a couple of weeks, they would see steps have been taken to address all of their concerns. “As long as their minds are at ease, we’re at ease,” he said.

CONCERNED CONSTITUENTS: Local seniors were in attendance at Monday evening’s City Council meeting to express their concerns about the Rossetti-Cowan Senior Center being used as a warming center for homeless individuals. (Advocate photo)
Marc Silvestri

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