MANHATTAN—A local community center and a church have partnered to provide free overnight shelter to homeless people at a hotel for the next week as temperatures continue to drop.

Commissioner Kathryn Focke said at Thursday’s Riley County Commission meeting that some of her fellow First Lutheran Church members who volunteer with the Common Table program, which provides regular free meals to the public, discussed how to help the homeless population get out of the recent cold front.

The local forecast predicts weekend high temperatures in the single digits and lows dipping below zero.

“It’s always been a concern of mine in this kind of weather because there are a lot of people out in the streets or living in tents or out of their cars,” Focke said. “It just breaks my heart to see people out in this cold weather.”

With the church’s funds, staffers reached out to Be Able, a new community center that connects people to social services, to find a space that would be willing to shelter folks. In just over a day, the entities paid the Super 8 Motel at 200 Tuttle Creek Blvd. in east Manhattan to house people from Wednesday night through Monday.

The Manhattan Emergency Shelter is the usual transitional shelter for homeless individuals and families in the immediate area, but there are some restrictions on who and how many people it can accept on a regular basis.

According to its website, to qualify for services a person must be without a home and requesting emergency shelter, have identification, be free of sex offenses and not be on its “no-return” list. It says someone may be placed on the list if they have seriously violated the shelter’s policies in the past, been provided financial assistance in the last year with a sustainable housing plan or stayed at the shelter repetitively.

“(The emergency shelter) does a fantastic job, but ... they do this 24/7, 365 (days a year) so they have limitations when it comes to funding and space since they’re always helping with housing programs,” said Stephanie Grynkiewicz, director of congregational life and outreach at First Lutheran and Be Able board member. “This was just a situation where we didn’t know if something was being done at a city or county level, and with the temperatures being dangerously cold, we just needed to figure out how to get some immediate action done so that folks were safe and being taken care of.”

The church paid a down payment of $2,000 for the five nights, and Grynkiewicz and Scott Voos, executive director of Be Able, said they have been reaching out to community partners for extra funding to potentially extend the stay a bit longer because of weather conditions.

Even with short notice, five people stayed at the motel Wednesday night. Organizers anticipate sheltering up to 20 people this weekend.

Voos said Be Able has loose qualifications for someone to stay at the hotel, such as making sure individuals qualify as homeless and having a background check performed, but the initial group was mostly made of regular visitors to the community center. Voos said staff members also made efforts to go around town to find people and tell them about the option.

“The reality is we have built a great relationship with the homeless community already,” he said. “Through that, we’re able to have a great understanding of the amount of people that are out there and who is in need.”

Grynkiewicz and Voos said staffers and volunteers would continue reaching out to people, such as some Common Table regulars, to invite them to stay at the hotel.

Be Able and church workers will be checking in with those staying on a daily basis, as well as bringing them evening meals.

While potential property damage was a concern brought up in initial discussions, Voos said based on the relationships and community he’s observed at the center, they are banking on their collective sense of responsibility.

“That (liability) is something we had to think through, but the dire weather conditions coupled with our oversight things we put into place, we feel that we’ll have a good chance,” Voos said.

Voos said the groups realize this is only a temporary solution, but the opportunity could lead to more discussion about creating a year-round easy-entry overnight shelter in town.

“ Manhattan does have the pieces to the equation,” Voos said. “It’s just about making it happen.”

Grynkiewicz said if people are interested, they can make individual contributions online at beablecommunity.com or drop off or mail them to Be Able’s downtown location, 205 S. Fourth St.

“Just gauging on the level of comments on Facebook and community conversations, there are a lot of people in Manhattan who are concerned about the same thing,” Grynkiewicz said, “... They want to help others, they’re just not really sure how to do it. That’s why it’s important to have plans in place like this so when the need arises, action can be taken quickly and money is spent to truly help those who actually need it.”

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