‘Warming more than just bodies’: School gym hosts Camden’s unhoused amid winter freeze

Tawanda Jones rests in what she calls her

At the warming center at Yorkship Elementary School on Feb. 11, 2021, Tawanda Jones rests in what she calls her "apartment" — strategically-placed blankets that she said hide her from the patrons' view when she sleeps in the gym. (April Saul for WHYY)

It was the morning of Jan. 28 when Connie Kellum saw the weather report for Camden and called Tawanda “Wawa” Jones, her longtime friend.

“I said, ‘What are we doing for Code Blue? We got five hours, the storm’s in Buffalo, and it’s coming.”

Jones — founder of the Camden Sophisticated Sisters drill team and the Masked Melanin Market, which showcases Black-owned businesses — had been thinking the same thing.

Two years ago, Jones and Kellum had created a warming center for people experiencing homelessness in Camden at the Urban Banquet Hall during a frigid “Code Blue” weekend.

“I said, you get the building, I’m going shopping!” recalled Kellum.

Jones reached out to Camden Superintendent of Schools Katrina McCombs, who decided within a half-hour to let them use the gymnasium at Yorkship Elementary School in the Fairview neighborhood.

By 5 p.m., “the place was loaded and we were ready to go,” Kellum said.

The warming center has now been up and running with donations and volunteers for over two weeks, with no contracts or funding from the city or state.

The shelter at Yorkship is meeting a need that the city is not, said Camden activist Amir Khan, who uses an RV with showers and a washer/dryer to minister to the city’s unhoused residents every weekend. What the women have established in the school gym “is the only real Code Blue/day warming center in the city,” said Khan.

Jennifer Conrad helps serve dinner
At the warming center at Yorkship Elementary School on Feb. 10, 2021, volunteer Jennifer Conrad helps serve dinner. Conrad decided to help because her daughter used to dance in Tawanda Jones’ drill team, the Camden Sophisticated Sisters, and helped the girl stay on what her mother calls “a good path.” (April Saul for WHYY)

Khan said that other shelters in the city, like Joseph’s House, only accommodate the unhoused at night and claimed that money raised from the Homeless Trust Fund Act, which could’ve been spent on shelters, had been used elsewhere.

If Kellum lit the spark, Jones — who has been sleeping overnight at the site for over two weeks — has provided continuous warmth, taking to Facebook often to announce the shelter’s current needs, express thanks for donations, and trumpet its successes.

Damion Stratton, who is from Philadelphia and is experiencing homelessness, has stayed at the makeshift shelter nearly every night since it opened.

“This is definitely the most welcoming experience anywhere in Camden,” says Stratton. “You don’t leave here hungry, you don’t leave here needing anything. Tawanda makes sure before you go back out the door, you’re good.” He and a few other patrons have become volunteers at the shelter, helping to maintain order and keep the facility clean.

Tawanda Jones breaks into song to entertain her patrons
At the warming center at Yorkship Elementary School on Feb. 10, 2021, Tawanda Jones breaks into song to entertain her patrons. (April Saul for WHYY)

Since the shelter’s inception, the gym has housed between 40 to 70 men and women per night. Its occupants are often ferried over from the transportation center — where bathrooms are typically locked — or brought in by police officers from as far away as Runnemede.

Jones has personally cut their hair and serenaded them during open mic sessions, brought in job recruiters, found space in rooming houses for 10 people experiencing homelessness and an apartment for another; and convinced nine others to enter detox. She also arranged airline tickets for a man and his service dog to reunite with his family in Colorado.

The personal touches that set this shelter apart from others drew criticism from at least one official during a February Camden City Council meeting dominated by the issue of homelessness.

Camden Director of Human Services Carmen Rodriguez said that Code Blue is supposed to be a “life-saving” measure, and not meant to provide comfort.

“When we do warm warming sites, we’re not here to invite the unhoused in to feel comfortable, to give all kinds of haircuts and baths and feed them lasagna and things of that nature,” Rodriguez said.

Jones, for whom the endeavor is “a ministry,” bristled at the remark.

“Stop throwing these people in the trash,” she said. “Listening to the City Council meeting, I thought: Have we come so far from loving one another? Maybe they’re getting their haircut so they can look presentable and feel good about themselves!”

Tawanda Jones gives a patron a haircut.
At the warming center at Yorkship Elementary School on Jan. 31, 2021, Tawanda Jones gives a patron a haircut. (April Saul for WHYY)

Jones’ family members said they are used to her spending nights in the gym, in an “apartment” she has created on one side draped in blankets that hide her from the patrons’ view. Jones said she’s grateful that old friend Elton Custis, a mental health supervisor and Camden Board of Education member, visits at midnight to watch over the shelter while she sleeps.

“She’s been supportive of me since I was a kid in middle school, like a big sister,” Custis said. “I just go ahead and stay the night so she can get the rest she needs.”

Jones also gets help from Camden County Police Chief Gabe Rodriguez, who has his officers stop by regularly to help insure the shelter’s safety.

When Jones’ parents visited the shelter, her dad, Ron Kirkland, handed each of the patrons a $5 bill. “Wawa is the Dudley Do-Right of Camden,” said Jones’ mother, Wilda Twyne. “I pray every day: God, please put a shield over her, because she has all kinds coming in here.”

Shaniah Allen, 11, and her sister Taliah Allen, 8; take the temperatures of those who enter
At the warming center at Yorkship Elementary School on Feb. 11, 2021, volunteers Shaniah Allen, 11, and her sister Taliah Allen, 8; take the temperatures of those who enter as a COVID-19 precaution. (April Saul for WHYY)

Although Kellum admits it can be difficult to convince people to keep their masks on, the shelter endeavors to observe COVID-19 prevention protocols. “I’m not going to see people die in the street because of COVID,” Kellum said.

Shanell Hannah’s two young daughters came and took the temperatures of people entering the gym. “I just wanted to let them know that not everyone is as privileged as they are,” Hannah said.

Longtime social worker Judyann McCarthy also brought her children to volunteer at the shelter. “This is the America I know we can be,” said McCarthy. “We need each other and this shelter has proven that to me.”

Jennifer Conrad volunteered because she was grateful for Jones’ support in the past. “My daughter was in the Camden Sophisticated Sisters, and Wawa kept her on a good path,” said Conrad. “Now when she needs something, I just ask, ‘Where?’”

Tawanda Jones watches as her father, Ron Kirkland, gives a $5 bill to each patron
At the warming center at Yorkship Elementary School on Feb. 10, 2021, Tawanda Jones watches as her father, Ron Kirkland, gives a $5 bill to each of its patrons. (April Saul for WHYY)

Jones said churches have not been much help — with a few exceptions, like Fellowship Community in Collingswood and in Mount Laurel, and First Refuge Baptist and Higher Temple in Camden. “I find it frustrating because the true ministry is outside the four walls of the church,” said Jones. “You have to meet people where they are.”

For Jones, the shelter has become a home away from home, “a humbling experience” that has “softened” her. She describes its patrons with affection.

“We have Pops,” she said, “who shuffles when he walks. He’ll say, ‘I would love to dine with you,’ he’s so debonair!” And there’s the man who lost his wife and home: “He was an information technology guy, he has pictures of himself with Obama!” Jones said.

Jones said she considers the shelter’s population “one big dysfunctional family. They laugh with me and protect me.”

Still, Jones is aware that the shelter is a waystation in its patrons’ lives — many of whom, she said, grapple with “many kinds of mental illness or addiction.”

Tawanda Jones breaks into song to entertain its patrons
At the warming center at Yorkship Elementary School on Feb. 10, 2021, Tawanda Jones breaks into song to entertain its patrons. (April Saul for WHYY)

On a recent night, she met a familiar patron at the entrance.

“Are you high?” she asked him. “Aren’t you supposed to be at Joseph’s House? Don’t you want to go where it’s more permanent?

“Yes,” he said, with a grin. “But I’m already here, and it’s 31 degrees.”

Last week, Kellum — who Jones credits for bringing much-needed structure and “impeccable organizing skills” to the venture — surveyed the gym as she prepared to serve rotisserie chicken.

“Imagine,” she said, “if I had not made that call, how many bodies would have been frozen in the streets of Camden?”

Custis said he plans to visit other shelters to see how they compare with the one at Yorkship, especially in light of Rodriguez’s comment at the council meeting.

“I’d like to see what they’ve been doing if they think this shelter is a luxury.” Custis believes the Yorkship operation could be “a very good model” and hopes the county and state adopt some of the measures his friend has introduced. This week, Jones and three other New Jersey residents will be honored by Gov. Phil Murphy to mark Black History Month.

“Tawanda is warming more than just the bodies,” Custis said. “She’s warming their souls, their minds, and their hearts … treating them like normal human beings and giving them hope to push forward.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal