Brutal cold presents challenges for No Freeze center

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Willimantic - posted Wed., Jan. 30, 2013
The Windham No Freeze Hospitality Center provides assistance to local residents during the cold months of the year. Courtesy photos. - Contributed Photo

It was 6:20 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 24, still more than an hour and a half before the Windham No Freeze Hospitality Center’s official 8 p.m. check-in time. But it was very cold - only 18 degrees, according to the red digital readout outside a nearby bank. So there were already a half-dozen people gathered outside the Main Street Willimantic shelter. Four men and one woman stood in the dimly-lit parking lot. They were bundled up against the cold, some of them holding beverages. As they chatted, another man arrived. One man, noticing the interviewer’s bare hands, pulled off a glove and offered it; he had another pair on underneath.

Asked where they stay during the day when temperatures approach the single digits, the visitors had differing responses. One mentioned laundromats. Another said that he was employed, and spent the daylight hours working. “I haven’t been able to find an apartment yet,” he said. Asked when the shelter would open, the visitors said that doors are normally unlocked around 7:30 p.m. There are no early openings during brutal cold snaps, they said, due to the fact that the shelter is completely run by volunteers. “When the government doesn’t provide services, people from the community have to do it,” said one man. “[Volunteers] have their own lives to live.”

As the hour crept closer to 7:30, people began to converge upon the shelter from both sides. One person pushed another in a wheelchair along the sidewalk. A pair of men approached from the other side, walking together with hands in pockets.

Asked later whether the shelter ever opens early, director Leigh Duffy said that it’s not often necessary. “We can when we need to,” she said. The need is largely averted via coordination with other providing agencies. There are evening meals at the local Baptist Church, soup kitchens and other programs that give people a warm place to stay.

But, "we are absolutely over capacity right now,” said Duffy. After check-in on Jan. 24, for example, “We have about four people on chairs right now,” said Duffy. In fact, Duffy had just sent out a plea to local community organizations and churches, “to see if somebody else would open up a warm space,” she said.

Guests at the center run the gamut, from healthy individuals who are momentarily in need of assistance to folks suffering from severe mental health issues and/or struggling with substance abuse. Some have a hard time tolerating a crowded shelter. “You’ve seen the building,” said Duffy. “Think of 35 or 40 people crowded together in that space. Some people would rather take their chances elsewhere.” Those with cars might attempt to tough it out in their vehicles overnight. When the weather is especially brutal, the staff tries to encourage folks to come in out of the cold. “If somebody has absolutely no other place to go, they’ll probably agree to stay in a chair for the night,” said Duffy.

The Windham No Freeze is completely community-sustained, receiving no funds from the state or federal government. A recent dance party at the Willimantic Elks Club, with music provided by a group headed by local musician and philanthropist Bruce John, raised more than $10,000 for the shelter. With rent for the building costing $12,000, “We rely on the fundraiser to pay the rent for the year,” said Duffy. With a total operating budget of $110,000 per year, the center relies upon donations from local businesses, colleges, individuals and community service organizations. “We’re really totally locally-funded,” said Duffy.

Not relying upon government gives the shelter some flexibility. It is not in a position to be decimated by recent cuts to funding. It is not required to ask for identification. It is not required to turn away guests who might be somewhat intoxicated. “That’s what we’re trying to do is close those gaps,” said Duffy, to “provide whatever the community needs.”

When the weather gets cold, the shelter sees "some of the hardcore folks coming in,” said Duffy, referring to people who ordinarily prefer to tough it out on their own. This is a good thing in many ways, allowing the shelter staff to help reconnect guests with services and the community. But, “it makes for a very interesting place,” said Duffy.

The Windham No Freeze Hospitality Center is located at 1110 Main St., in Willimantic. For more information, see the center’s website at, or its Facebook page at Donations can be sent to: WRNFHC, P.O. Box 46, Willimantic, CT 06226.

The shelter requires a number of volunteers each evening to help staff the sleeping area. Volunteers can also provide assistance in other ways. To become involved with the shelter, contact 860-450-1346, or e-mail

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