By JOHN T. WARD
With a surprise snowstorm hinting at the need, a new ‘warming center’ for homeless men opened in Red Bank Thursday.
The warmup act for the ribbon cutting? None other than pop superstar Jon Bon Jovi.
“If this is not God’s sign that this is needed, I don’t know what is,” Pilgrim Baptist Church Pastor Terrence Porter told an audience packed into a church meeting room as a heavy snow fell outside.
Created at the urging of the rock singer’s wife, Dorothea Bongiovi, the Hope & Comfort Warming Center, located in a church-owned house at 166 Shrewsbury Avenue, can accommodate up to a dozen men for overnight stays during cold spells.
It offers cots and blankets, a shower, snacks and other amenities “to give a sense of dignity and a sense of hope” to clients, Porter told the audience.
The center is the first in Monmouth County under New Jersey’s Code Blue law. Enacted in 2017, the law requires officials in all 21 counties to create response plans for providing services to at-risk individuals when the temperature drops below or near freezing levels.
Once a Code Blue alert is issued by county officials, local police can assist the homeless by taking them to a warming center that provides food, shelter and additional necessary items.
Until now, no such facility existed, Red Bank police Chief Darren McConnell told the audience.
“There was nothing we could do,” he said. “We could try to get people someplace, but there was no place to go. It ended up being the lobby of the police station or emergency room waiting room. It just wasn’t anything appropriate.”
Without funding from the state or county, it fell to charities and social service agencies to make such a center happen, Porter said.
“This is about the community coming together,” Porter said, who singled out Dorothea Bongiovi; JBJ Soul Foundation outreach coordinator Marylou Caputo; and Pilgrim Baptist secretary Birgit Mondesir for driving the project.
Dorothea Bongiovi, who with her husband has a home in Middletown, did not speak at Thursday’s event, and declined to be interviewed by redbankgreen. Porter credited her for, among other ideas, asking that the house have a washer and dryer for free use by clients.
Her husband, however, lent his star power to the event, stepping before the audience for brief remarks.
“I’m accustomed to working a microphone,” he quipped.
The foundation, which he and his wife launched in 2006 to combat homeless and hunger, now has warming centers in Camden and Philadelphia, Bon Jovi said. It has also “built nearly a thousand units of affordable housing from coast to coast,” and operates the pay-what-you-can Soul Kitchen restaurants in Red Bank and Toms River.
“At the beginning of this holiday season, let us remember what matters most,” said Bon Jovi. “We all have a lot to be thankful for, and the good lord gave us this opportunity to be here together, to make our community and ultimately this state and this place that we call home, just a little bit better.”
“Wow, how about this? Hard rock and gospel in the same place,” Porter said.
The house, used as the church’s youth center during the day, served as temporary housing for volunteers helping rebuild homes after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
McConnell said police departments from Red Bank and surrounding towns will now be able to bring homeless men to the center. Porter said men constitute the majority of the homeless in the area, though he hopes to find space to accommodate women and children in the future.
Mayor Pasquale Menna, an attorney, said he sometimes sees homeless men beneath the Route 35 Cooper Bridge from his office at Oyster Point on the Navesink River.
“We’re not going to be able to every wipe tear from every eye,” he told the gathering. “But this is a welcome first step.”
Because of zoning restrictions, the center cannot operate around the clock, and will instead open at 8 p.m. and close at 8 a.m. When cold weather persists, the center’s clients will be able to remain indoors at Lunch Break and, at dinnertime, Soul Kitchen, with local churches providing transportation.
Men in need of an overnight bed will check in either at JBJ Soul Kitchen on Monmouth Street (Wednesday through Saturday) or at Pilgrim Baptist (Sunday through Tuesday), where they’ll be able to get supper starting at 3:30 p.m.
Through their foundation, the Bongiovis created the Soul Kitchen in 2011, were previously instrumental in the creation of the Parker Family Health Center, a free clinic also located on Shrewsbury Avenue.