A somber ritual takes place around 7 every night at Eau Claire's largest homeless shelter.

Sojourner House staff use playing cards to conduct a lottery to determine who gets to spend the night.

The lottery "winners" get one of the 53 bunk beds crammed into the men's and women's dormitory rooms, while those who draw the unlucky cards must head back outside.

Thanks to the efforts of a few determined advocates, the fate of those who miss the cut for beds at Sojourner should be a little less daunting on the coldest nights this winter, as a deal has been reached to operate a temporary warming center two blocks away where homeless folks can seek respite from the frigid Wisconsin winter.

The Christ Church Cathedral board of directors recently voted to allow the basement of a former Mennonite church building it owns at 502 S. Farwell St. to accommodate Sojourner's overflow homeless population on nights with a predicted low temperature of 15 degrees or colder. The facility will be called the Eau Claire Overnight Warming Center.

"Lives are going to be saved by having this warming center. That's how important this is," said Dr. Ken Adler, founder of the Chippewa Valley Free Clinic and co-chairman of the community committee spearheading the warming center initiative.

The committee's goal is to have the center — with an expected capacity of about 20 people — up and running by Dec. 15, Adler said.

"We have the space, there is definitely the need and it obviously fits the mission of the church, so we're happy to help out," said Mike Carlson, junior warden in charge of buildings and grounds for Christ Church Cathedral.

Brianne Berres, director of Sojourner House, is thrilled by the development because she knows the shelter can't accommodate all of the homeless individuals needing a warm place to spend winter nights. 

Other community options, such as apartments offered by Family Promise of the Chippewa Valley for homeless families with children at Beacon House and supported housing units offered by Western Dairyland Economic Opportunity Council for homeless families and individuals, also have waiting lists.

No vacancies

Sojourner House, operated by Catholic Charities, has been operating at capacity for the past few months, serving about 145 different people every month and turning away an average of eight individuals a night. 

"We're full every night," said Berres, who called it "terribly disheartening" that the facility at 618 S. Barstow St. is forced daily to send five to 15 shelter-seekers back out into the cold. 

"When we have enough food, we offer them the chance to eat first and we try to offer gloves and blankets to at least help keep people warm in the night," she said.

On nights when the temperature is supposed to dip to 15 degrees or lower (excluding windchill), Sojourner is permitted by Catholic Charities policy to expand its capacity by nine people. The additional individuals are allowed to spend the night in the facility's activity room.

Those who miss the cut for even the overflow space — a number expected to go up as the temperature goes down — typically hunker down for the night in parking garages, wooded areas or downtown storefronts, hoping to at least find a reprieve from the wind, said Mike Henry, street pastor for Chippewa Valley Street Ministry, a volunteer group that has been providing food, clothing and other services for the homeless for the past seven years.

Henry, who checks nightly on the welfare of local homeless people, many of whom are elderly or struggle with mental illness, said the conditions they endure are often brutal.

"It's miserable to be out in it, and it's dangerous," he said, mentioning several cases of people who have suffered frostbite after spending nights outside last winter. "I've seen where people just suffer out there."

The street ministry has attempted to help by distributing some sleeping bags rated for minus 20 degrees, but Henry recognizes the planned warming center is a much better option.

"With the weather we've got coming up on us, it's just imperative we get this warming center," said Henry, the committee's other co-chairman. "In a compassionate society, you can't just let people stay out on the street."

Carlson agreed, adding, "These are our downtown neighbors we are serving. We want to provide them with a safe haven."

Sleeping not allowed

Despite having the warming center site secured, Adler acknowledged the project still faces hurdles, including funding and volunteer staffing. The warming center committee is seeking grants and donations to come up with the estimated $7,000 necessary to operate the facility through the winter.

The group has unveiled a website (ecwarmingcenter.com) where potential volunteers can learn more about the warming center and sign up for six-hour shifts staffing the overnight facility. Organizers hope to recruit four volunteers per night, with two working from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. and the other two taking the 2 to 8 a.m. shift.

Even if those challenges are met, organizers recognize the warming center solution isn't perfect, in particular because the site doesn't meet city codes for a sleeping shelter. Thus, plans call for sleeping to be prohibited in the warming center.

"Sleep is a natural bodily function," Adler said. "None of us are happy with the idea that they have to stay awake, but they do and we're going to make the best of it," Adler said. "The real purpose is just for people to stay overnight on bad nights when they have nowhere else to go."

In an ideal world, he said, the center would be open every night, but initially the plan is to follow the same 15-degree standard that Sojourner uses to activate its excess capacity. That likely will be most nights in Eau Claire for the next few months, as the average low temperature in Eau Claire from 1981 through 2010 was 10.6 degrees in December, 5.4 degrees in January and 9.9 degrees in February, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

While the facility doesn't include showers, it does have men's and women's bathrooms. The warming center committee also plans to make coffee and hot water available to guests, and the street ministry will attempt to provide enough donated food for a simple breakfast. 

Organizers hope to furnish the center with chairs before its debut, but Berres said clients will be happy just to be out of the elements even if they can't sleep and have to sit in an empty room.

"It's nice to know people will at least have a safe, warm space to be instead of being outside," Berres said.

A better long-term solution, she stressed, would be for Eau Claire leaders to work on lowering the city's poverty rate, developing more affordable housing and possibly opening a larger homeless shelter offering more services to help people get back on their feet.