CAMDEN, NJ — It’s close to 10 p.m. and Tawanda Jones, known to friends as “Wawa,” is pulling up to Camden’s Yorkship Elementary School in a white pick-up truck.
Temperatures Friday hovered in the low 40s, but at the late hour it felt colder. Especially for the half-a-dozen people sitting in the back of the truck, which Jones parked before helping everyone disembark.
Providing transportation. Enforcing health protocols. Ensuring a shelter is running properly. None of these things are unusual for Jones. Nurturing is part of her nature.
“This is my upbringing. My grandparents were the type of people that we never had our home to ourselves. When people were passing through town….they became extended family,” Jones told TAPinto Camden at the school. “It was second nature to take care of people from all different walks of life, all different situations.”
Jones said her new makeshift warming shelter is partly in reaction to a lack of resources in the city.
The city of Camden opens warming centers when Code Blues (roughly from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.) are triggered - once temperatures dip to 32 and below.
Some activists in the city say these shelters aren't always open and there aren't places for people to head to during the day to keep warm.
When the Yorkship School shelter opened, Jones made it clear it would be a 24/7 operation. As of Tuesday, she herself has stayed at the center for 13 days and counting to ensure all is running accordingly.
For instance, coronavirus safety rules.
When guests enter the shelter they must have face masks on. Everyone is subject to temperature checks and a sign-in sheet is set up in the event contact tracing is necessary.
The shelter hasn’t reported any issues so far, and in fact has inspired countless residents, organizations, churches and others to chip in. Camden County Police Chief Gabe Rodriguez has stopped by, as have city and school officials.
A constant police presence has helped with security. Among the contributors from clothing to hot food and transportation are Father Michael Mannion, of Diocese of Camden, Corrine’s Place, Harvinskins Seafood Market & Cafe, Seeds of Hope Ministries, and Circle of Life Funeral Home.
How it began
A heavy snowstorm was days away.
Between six to nine inches of snow in the region, only making way for a series of blistering cold nights.
Constance “Connie” Kellum was looking at the forecast at home on Jan. 28 and immediately called Jones.
Two years ago, both women opened shelters at a church and a community hall due to overcrowding at existing shelters. Those lasted for roughly four days total.
After speaking with Kellum, Jones reached out to the school district. The district and Superintendent Katrina McCombs took less than an hour to agree.
"When she called me back, she said, 'We got Yorkship!" Kellum said. "I responded to her, I’m going shopping. She goes sweetheart, please pick up the screens, so I got a whole bunch of them.”
Screens, an alternative to face masks, were on the shopping list. That would soon include boots, blankets, cleaning products and other essentials. Roughly 40 volunteers have worked rotating shifts since the shelter's luanch Jan. 29 - among the staples is social worker Judyann McCarthy.
Kellum says providing a socially-distanced place was vital, as was fostering a positive environment.
“We got videos. A guest came up to me one day and said 'Ms. Connie, Ms. Connie I've got a song in me, I’ve got to let it out.' I said go ahead, he said no get the camera….he then started singing a song. He had so much talent. I think it just feels good that they know we’re watching them, and we’re cheering them on,” Kellum continued.
Jones, also the co-founder of the Camden Sophisticated Sisters and head of The Masked Melanin Market, and Kellum balked at the idea that the needs are being met in Camden, saying many more people could be helped.
It's also not lost on her that Yorkship was among the buildings recently announced as part of a school closure plan by the district.
“When you look at models that are already out there, like Cherry Hill, how they took a hotel and housed the less fortunate or Philadelphia, how they took different buildings and made various shelters, all kinds of different things are going on,” Jones said. “I just feel like we can do a lot better with the buildings that we have. There are so many abandoned ones and it would be a shame to let this beautiful structure go to waste.”
On Friday, 54 guests stayed at the Yorkship School shelter.
Over 70 stayed Sunday, where a small Super Bowl feast was shared, and Jones estimates close to 200 have taken advantage of the shelter since it first opened.
While there have been uplifting moments, Jones has also been saddened with anecdotes from some guests.
As she’s made her rounds to and from the transportation center in downtown Camden, she's heard about long wait times while using the state’s 2-1-1 Emergency Management hotline. People have also shared that while the city's shelters are a reprieve from the cold they are typically let out in the early morning hours when it's still frigid outside.
“One told me, after going to one shelter, something that hurt me. His exact words were, ‘They treated you like people there,’ Why aren’t they treating you like people everywhere?” Jones said.
A city spokesman said during Code Blue three shelters are available to meet needs locally, an endeavor which has been tougher this year due to COVID-19 protocols.
Although the Yorkship shelter may not be open permanently, Jones says she hopes it will start a "genuine conversation" about what else can be done in the city.
She's passionate not only about providing these kinds of spaces but removing the stigma that it's not always worth the trouble since many of the people in need are drug addicts or coming from outside Camden.
How you can help
Until more long-term plans can be drawn up the shelter will need volunteers.
Elton Custis, Camden school board member, has provided his time to the shelter since Jan. 31.
He hopes to see more male volunteers step up.
“Give four hours of your time, or whatever you can. These woman are making the noise, doing the work, we need to stand with them. We need to give them a break…and it’s important to protect our queens,” said Custis, who’s mostly stayed at Yorkship during overnight hours.
The warming shelter at Yorkship usually closes its doors around 11 p.m., when capacity has already been met.
Jones said she will provide online updates regarding the shelter’s schedule as it remains fluid.
Right now, locals are encouraged to donate winter coats and toiletries to the shelter by calling 856-426-8674 or 609-638-0632.