When the weather is a bit warmer than the nearly single-digit temperatures that chattered teeth this week, Phillip Ian Whipp said he likes to sleep in his car, a “tiny” 2013 Fiat 500.
Fortunately, he also could find comfort at his other preferred resting place, the overnight warming shelter in the Salvation Army building on South Memorial Boulevard.
The shelter accommodates up to 20 people with a place to sleep, meals, beverages, clothing and other items, from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. seven days a week on days when the temperature is forecast to be 32 degrees or lower.
Thursday morning was supposed to dip to 12 degrees, with chill factors making the air colder.
During that snap the shelter has remained open during the days, so guests “don’t have to leave in the morning,” Lt. Ruby Keith said. The center will remain open through Saturday night and will close on Sunday, because low temperatures are expected to be about 40 degrees. The shelter has been open about 15 nights this year.
Typically about five to seven guests visit the shelter — mostly men but sometimes women and children, too — where they sleep on cots in a 30-by-15-foot room called a fellowship hall. The women and families are housed in separate space down a hallway.
Whipp, 58, estimated on a recent snowy night that he has stayed at the shelter about 20 nights since he first visited last year, when emotional problems led to eviction from the apartment where he was living next to “noisy neighbors” who left him unable to relax.
“I got behind with the rent, and they kicked me out, which has been the best thing ever,” he said.
He said he went to Piedmont Community Services, which sent him to a local psychiatric ward, where he spent several nights last January. “I was chronic depressive with suicidal tendencies. I couldn’t see a way forward,” he said.
But with that help hose mental health issue are under control, he said.
“It’s medicated,” he said, “plus the fact I now have absolutely the best neighbors in the world” – referring to nights when he sleeps in his car – “where I park I’m surrounded by wildlife, and no one bothers me.”
And the other nights, he’s at the warming shelter, a place he loves.
“This place is heaven … absolute heaven,” he said. “They feed you. They provide you with this jacket … boots, underwear, socks. “They have cots for everybody. I, by choice, sleep on the floor (the shelter provides him a pile of blankets and a couple of pillows).”
He said he likes the camaraderie among the regulars who stay at the shelter. They talk and can watch television and play checkers. And he praises the managers and volunteers who take care of the guests.
He called volunteer Sarah Sacra “an angel” and said “she’s got a heart of gold.”
“I make fresh coffee and fetch drinks, serve the hot meals, clean up, run the dishwasher,” said Sacra, who smiled as she chatted with Whipp while making him a grilled-cheese sandwich.
She also makes sure clients don’t need anything for that day, such as clothing items and toiletries, and asks them if they need to talk to a minister or someone else about private issues.
Sacra said the shelter is not just for homeless people.
“You could have just lost your power, and it’s cold, and you need heat,” she said. “Sometimes this is transitional. It’s a pit stop. It’s not the end. It could very well be me sitting at the table.”
Whipp said he works part time as a sales associate for a local company, earning about $9,000 a year. He makes payment on his Fiat and owes about $25,000 in college loans and $75,000 in medical bills.
Whipp is from Oxford, England, and has lived in the United States for 22 years, in this area since 2016. He said he is a former public school math teacher, and he said he’s looking to his future.
“This year, I’ve spent getting my head right from the ‘terrorism’ of the previous year,” he said. “Then I’m hoping to move forward. I’ve just about got things right now.
“I’m comfortable, and I’m in a great frame of mind. So I need to start weaning myself off medication. … Then I’ll be in a better position to go anywhere in the country to use my skills.”