Baraboo shelter helps dozens find food, warmth as cold weather continues

January 31, 2019 GMT

Dozens of people have found food, warmth and cots at a Baraboo church after community members arranged an emergency homeless shelter open throughout this week.

Jaime Olson and Jori Ruff led the effort as “concerned citizens.” They are both on the Baraboo Area Homeless Shelter board of directors but noted their work organizing this week’s shelter at the First Presbyterian Church in Baraboo was not on behalf of the board.

“Jori and I just were concerned and decided we were gonna see what we could do and it just kind of all came together,” Olson said.

With record low temperatures this week -- the high Wednesday reached only 13 degrees below zero with wind chills as low as minus 55 -- the homeless population and anyone with a broken furnace are particularly at risk.

Baraboo, Reedsburg, River Valley and Sauk Prairie public schools, as well as University of Wisconsin-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County, are closed through Thursday. Baraboo Public Library and several downtown businesses closed due to the weather Wednesday, though some, including Bekah Kate’s and Little Village Cafe, opened for limited hours.

City buildings were open Wednesday, but “nonessential” employees were given the option of taking personal time, said Director of Public Works Tom Pinion. He said “a few” chose to do so.

Ruff started looking for locations for an emergency warming shelter over the weekend, and by Sunday, the Rev. Lisa Newberry said her church decided to step up. On Tuesday afternoon, some people had come to the shelter for meals and to warm up.

Between overnight accommodations, food and its warming functions, the shelter and its volunteers have served “dozens of people,” according to Ruff. Olson said some families had been referred to the emergency shelter because they were losing their hotel rooms.

One room at the church was set up with three cots to offer some privacy for a family, while more cots filled a large common room for individuals. Trouble with one of the building’s furnaces hasn’t stopped the operation — the main furnace continues to keep the place “toasty,” Ruff wrote in a text.

Organizers planned to deliver food to about 10 families Tuesday and pick up others to bring them to the church for meals. Olson noted they would be willing to go outside of Baraboo “if the need is there.”

Restaurants and individuals have donated enough food to fill the church’s kitchen and last a couple days, Newberry said. Others have given money, supplies or their time. More than 25 volunteers have helped over the last few days, according to Ruff.

“I haven’t had a chance to tally it, but it’s been a huge blessing,” Olson said of donations Tuesday. “We have an amazing community that has really stepped up. We got to the point where we almost had to kind of stop some of the donations for now until we see where we’re at later in the week.”

Sauk County currently lacks a permanent homeless or warming shelter since Matt and Rachelle Fearson, who operated a warming shelter out of their church, recently moved to Arizona. The Baraboo Area Homeless Shelter board of directors is working on getting zoning approval for a permanent shelter, which may open as early as spring, Olson said.

In the meantime, Newberry said using the church as a warming shelter has been “a great experience” and she would do it again if the need arises.

“Whatever people’s needs are in the cold, let us know,” Newberry said. “We’re trying to make sure everyone is safe and cared for.”