A local soup kitchen’s director wants to open 24 hours per day as a warming center during extreme cold conditions, but must first be rezoned and inspected for safety.
“I can’t even open up and offer them a cup of coffee because I’m not zoned to be open,” said Fred Stegner, director of the Springfield Soup Kitchen, 830 W. Main St., as snow fell and temperatures dipped below zero Monday. “What is this? This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
In a string of social media posts and emails sent to followers of the Springfield Soup Kitchen over the weekend, Stegner said the city blocked his efforts to open as a warming center for those in need as snow fell and temperatures dropped.
But city officials said they had previous discussions with Stegner and had informed him that the soup kitchen was only allowed to operate under the times it had been approved for by a zoning board when it opened, said Shannon Meadows, director of Springfield’s Community Development Department.
Those hours are Monday and Wednesday nights, when it normally serve meals.
Stegner was given special approval last winter — when multiple snow storms and extremely cold temperatures hit the region — by the Springfield Fire Marshal and city officials to open as a warming center.
“That was in response to a particular storm, but that didn’t carry forward forever,” Meadows said.
This past weekend was not the first time the city had brought it to Stegner’s attention that he needed to file appropriate paperwork with the city to be able to open as a warming center, she added.
There should be no time constraints put on an emergency, Stegner said. In the midst of these temperatures, there’s no time to go through the system to get the city’s approval to help those in need, he added.
People who are normally turned away from traditional shelters in the city, such as someone who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, could die if they are denied a warm place to rest at night, Stegner said.
“Why would they pick to make this whole issue to come to the surface at the peak of the cold season?” he asked.
The approval is needed because the city ensures the centers are safe and healthy and are compliant with the city’s zoning building and fire codes, Meadows said.
There are other organizations in the city that have been approved by city government to shelter those in need in these winter conditions, she added.
As of Monday afternoon, Interfaith Hospitality Network — which runs a group of men, women and family shelters — had room available for people seeking warmth, a spokeswoman at the office said.
Once the Springfield Soup Kitchen goes through the necessary approval process by the city, it could become part of the city’s network of care for those in need in emergency conditions, Meadows said.
“We need to be proud in the city of Springfield that we have such passionate and compassionate individuals who are willing to go above and beyond … and Fred is definitely one of those people,” she said.
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