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McLean County Salvation Army debuts 'Midnight Cafe,' offering new warming center services this winter

Cafeteria tables fill a multipurpose room. Three people sit spaced out between the tables with backpacks and food.
Emily Bollinger
In years past, the Salvation Army in downtown Bloomington put up the cafeteria tables and layout mats for sleeping during the coldest winter nights. Its new model, dubbed the "Midnight Cafe," still allows people to stay at the nonprofit overnight, but there will no longer be mats and blankets laid out for sleeping.

The Salvation Army in downtown Bloomington has adopted a different model for its warming center this winter that's aimed at both continuing to provide overnight shelter for people in need and satisfying city preferences for how the nonprofit offers the service.

After 13 years of providing an area to sleep within a multipurpose room at its Safe Harbor Shelter, the McLean County Salvation Army said it will no longer provide bedding, after ongoing discussions with the City of Bloomington about appropriate usage of the facility.

Instead, the nonprofit is offering what it's calling the "Midnight Cafe," a warming center offering an array of other services for up to 40 adults who need drop-in, emergency shelter overnight.

"We wanted to make sure as a provider of homeless services here in McLean County — what else could we do to ensure that our unhoused populations are still supported during those cold winter months?" said Residential Services Director Gaynette Hoskins. "Leadership sat with us and... Midnight Cafe was the baby of that plan. And that was just to make sure that people can have somewhere warm to go at times when they have no other options."

The Midnight Cafe opened after temperatures dropped to 32 degrees overnight for three back-to-back nights in late October. The warming center is open from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. and offers light food and drink, a chance to shower or do laundry, personal hygiene kits and group activities.

It's a stopgap service, something Hoskins said the agency is offering in the interim as it prepares for next winter, and it does have its shortfalls.

"We did a really good job, especially in those winter months, [of] making sure that everyone was in here, housed, they were good. And now we just don't have the capacity to do that anymore," she said. "Just like you thought, 'How do I stay up all night?,' our community members are saying that as well. Like, 'I'd rather just go ahead and be cold and try to get some sleep, wrap up in some more blankets,' than to say, 'Actually I'm just going to sit up all night.'"

Development Director Deborah Cole said the change is a result of ongoing talks with the Bloomington city officials about the appropriate use of the Salvation Army's multipurpose room.

"We were putting the mats down in a place that we eat our dinner. We just want to make sure everyone is safe and they would like us not to put mats down where we previously ate," Cole said. "Because they would like us not to do that, the next best thing we could think of with our facility is to allow people to come in and sit at a table."

She added that if the multipurpose room was to be used as a place to sleep, city officials told the agency the room needed another exit.

"These were things we could not do that quickly — so we're not by any means saying that they've caused us to shut something down. This is just their preference and we would like to make sure that we follow those directives," Cole said.

First contacted last week, a spokesperson for the city declined to respond to a WGLT request for clarification on the matter.

Earlier this year, Salvation Army Major Dan Leisher said the agency had been in ongoing talks with the city after a fire code inspection last fall found the number of people being sheltered at the Safe Harbor exceededthe building's capacity; at the time, the city said it had "offered the building owner options for funding but respect that the decision as to whether to purpose those or other options to address these life safety issues are up to the property owner."

'We're looking at everything'

Hoskins said she's optimistic things will look different next year.

"We're not really trying to push too hard or rushing things because we want to make sure that we do it right. It's not a rush, but it is intentional planning; we are very strategic," she said. "We definitely want to make sure we have something in place before we have to open in October, November of 2024."

The Salvation Army is currently in the fourth month of a six-month-long needs assessment that it will use to determine what kind of funding is needed for expanded programming and facilities. Once the assessment is complete and plans are in place, the nonprofit will seek to raise funds accordingly.

"Since this happened, we're looking at the whole facility and how we can better serve our community," Cole said. "We're just looking at everything because we want to do everything the way that we're supposed to and keep everybody as safe as possible by.... using our facility the best that we can. We're looking at everything from community partner support to how our building works to what is needed in the community."

In the interim, Hoskins said there has been a surge of support for the nonprofit from other agencies recently — something especially needed for the Midnight Cafe model that requires more resources than the previous warming center iteration: More volunteers to sit up and set out the foodfor people who stay overnight, as well as supplies for the hygiene kits and additional food needs.

"People are helping in so many different ways that it's hard to pinpoint. This community is showing out 100-fold. Every time I speak to someone, the first thing they say is, 'What do you need? How can I help?'" Hoskins said. "This is a time that really just brought us all together a lot better. So, although it may be challenging, what's coming from this is beautiful. We needed this deconstruction to reconstruct everything."

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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