For some Mainers, sub-zero temperatures might mean letting your engine warm up for a few minutes or tossing an extra log on the fire. But for those without access to reliable heating or a refuge from the elements, the cold can be life-threatening.

When winter temperatures reach extreme lows, as they did last week, networks of local groups and county officials hustle to provide emergency warming shelters to those who need a place to go.

The Gathering Place offers people a warm place to meet during the daytime, but it has also recently opened its doors on dangerously cold nights. Contributed / The Gathering Place

“I don’t think anyone really wants to believe in their community that there are people unsheltered, living in their cars or in a tent or in a warm space behind one of their downtown businesses,” said Mary Connolly, executive director of the Gathering Place in Brunswick. “But that’s reality.”

Normally open only during the day, the Gathering Place offers community members, including people suffering from homelessness, a warm space to meet and share food and coffee, Connolly said. But after a beloved regular froze to death on the streets of Brunswick in November 2019, the organization began looking for ways to expand access.

It was a huge loss for our community here,” Connelly said. “That’s sort of what got us going: the hope that we can maybe help prevent something like this from happening again.”

Now, on winter’s coldest nights, the Gathering Place’s small staff and team of volunteers determine whether they have the manpower to open their doors, Connelly said. If they decide to open, they get the word out through local organizations like the police department, the library and Tedford Housing, a local shelter.


Louise Gephart, a volunteer at the Gathering Place, helps a guest during a day shift. Contributed / The Gathering Place

On Jan. 10, nine people came in from the cold to spend the night at the Gathering Place, including some referred by Tedford, which was at capacity.

“Tedford is always full,” said Connelly, explaining the need for emergency shelters. “So on the very, very cold nights where, you know, safety is a risk, it’s really great that we’re able to provide this other place for people to be.”

Sagadahoc County has taken similar steps in recent years to provide and promote emergency warming shelters, said Sarah Bennett, director of the county’s Emergency Management Agency.

When the National Weather Service alerts the agency that extreme cold is on the way, Bennett passes the message along to local towns, groups and emergency managers, she said. If towns agree there’s a need and have the resources to open an emergency shelter, the agency spreads the word through local organizations, the state’s 211 service, and a database maintained by Maine Emergency Management Agency.

Sometimes, no one turns up. On Jan. 11, the emergency shelter at the public safety training room in Topsham went unused, according to Town Manager Derek Scrapchansky.

Bennett, who attributed the underuse of the emergency shelters partly to Mainers’ desire to be self-sufficient and the stigma around seeking housing assistance, said the project is still worthwhile, even if community members aren’t yet taking full advantage.


“We can see in other states and other areas that it does work,” she said. “We just have to really promote this type of resource to people in Maine.”

She stressed that the shelters aren’t just for the homeless population, but for anyone who might need a warm place to spend the night, including those with unreliable or malfunctioning heating systems.

While Brunswick has recently approved a plan to expand Tedford Housing’s shelter offerings, the Gathering Place is still hoping to provide the community as much support as its limited manpower will allow.

“If we could open more often,” said Connelly, “we would love to do that.”

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