A Lincoln County homelessness task force has approached the city of Merrill about using the former fire station building at 701 E. First St. as a winter warming center. The group came to a Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday, seeking city approval to use the building between Nov. 1 and April 15 as a place for homeless people to come in out of the cold. 
Task force member Melissa Schroeder of North Central Community Action Program said the plan is to have eight chairs available. By using chairs instead of beds, the operation would be considered a warming center rather than a shelter, reducing the regulations it would need to meet.
“Our intention is to provide a safe, warm location for individuals to get out of the cold,” Schroeder said. 
There is a need in the community, she added. In winters past, homeless people in Merrill have been found sleeping in a church vestibule, a hotel stairway and in their cars. 
The task force defines homeless people as “those who don’t have a roof over their heads on a daily basis,” Schroeder said. While there is no accurate count of the homeless population in Merrill, 55 children have been identified as homeless. 
Schroeder added that the Wausau warming center, with a capacity of 25 people, was full most of this past winter.
“The fact is, the need is out there,” she said.
The ministerium, a coalition of local churches, is on board to provide volunteers to man the facility. The building would be available and attended from 7 p.m.-7 a.m. during the winter months.
Merrill Area United Way Director Dee Olsen said the former fire station is the best location the group has found in the city.
“We’re looking for a gift from the city to give us that space,” she said. “Without a facility, there is no way of moving forward with a warming center.”
Schroeder said the warming center would be operated on donations by volunteers.
“We’re not going to ask a dime from the city, except to give us a location,” she said.
Merrill Mayor Bill Bialecki said the city council hasn’t yet decided the future of the old fire station. There is a plan for the Transit Authority to move its Merrill-Go-Round buses to the newer apparatus bay addition, but the fate of the original 1917 building has not been determined.
Bialecki said the council will discuss the building at a future Committee of the Whole meeting, so the city can give an answer on the warming center.
City Finance Director Kathy Unertl noted that the building needs repairs that would cost more than it would to demolish it.
“The reality is that unfortunately this building has deteriorated significantly,” she said.