The Warming Center is located in Forest Hills Presbyterian Church. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.
The Warming Center is located in Forest Hills Presbyterian Church. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.

There was a knock on Linda Pulliam’s door, seven years ago, on a night as cold as it was fateful. There stood one of her former students, freezing and asking for help to escape the cold. It proved to be a seminal experience in the now-retired educator’s life. 

After she learned the former student had nowhere to go, her eyes opened to an overlooked problem. This set her down a path that would eventually culminate in the creation of the Martinsville, Henry County Warming Center. 

While most regard a dip in temperatures as an inconvenience, for the unhoused it could be deadly. While a national issue, the effects of homelessness often manifest at the local level, leaving it up to towns and communities to address the issue. 

Some communities rise to the occasion with comprehensive solutions while others do not. In both cases, individuals and non-governmental entities do what they can and oftentimes their efforts underscore just how dire the problem is. The Warming Center, a sanctuary for those trying to escape the cold, reveals a larger problem in need of a solution.   

“It’s bad,” said Joseph Felton, a recent Warming Center guest. “You have homeless people sleeping in tents, you have some sleeping in abandoned houses. They treat us like s—. And we didn’t do nothing wrong.” 

Few know this more than Pulliam, which is what prompted her to start the center. 

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Located at Forest Hills Presbyterian Church at 725 Beechnut Lane in Martinsville, the Warming Center provides the unhoused with a safe place to sleep overnight during inclement weather or when temperatures dip to unsafe levels, specifically 37 degrees or less. It does so strictly from the donations, monetary or in-kind, from the community. 

“Last year, we had higher numbers than we’re seeing this year,” said Warming Center Director Ariel Johnson as she described how patronage to her organization tripled compared to the previous year. “I associate that a lot with the eviction moratorium and COVID.” 

Forest Hills Presbyterian Church. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.
Forest Hills Presbyterian Church. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.

As the center established itself in the community, its mission evolved from just being a place where people can escape the weather to a proverbial bridge between unhoused individuals and the resources they need. 

In the seven years since the Warming Center’s inception, it has become a sort of one-stop-shop for services geared towards helping unhoused people find long-term housing. 

“We actually work directly with the…West Piedmont Better Housing Coalition,” Johnson said. “We serve as an access point…so if someone comes to our center we are able to do the intake process so we can get them connected to resources throughout the community and help transition them into independent housing.” 

Tom Salyer, a volunteer, discussed the importance of this aspect of the work. 

“If we don’t have volunteers, the leadership…has to take turns,” Salyer said. “We have found ourselves case managing during the day because we want to get them housed. I was just talking to the director today and we said we are spending more time with our guests here than the jobs that pay us.” 

For Salyer, it’s an uphill battle.  

“On average we have 19 guests a night, the most we’ve had is 29,” Salyer said. 

During the center’s initial year, average participation ranged from five to 10 people, according to Pulliam. 

“The homeless population is growing like it is in other parts of the country,” Salyer added.  

Salyer, like Johnson, believes current events, from the pandemic to inflation are fueling the current issue in Martinsville, but this isn’t a new problem.  

Felton agrees, while adding that the center is a much-needed respite from the realities of being unhoused.  

“The rent is so high, I get kicked out of hotels,” Felton said.

Ultimately, Johnson and others want people to see homelessness through a more empathetic lens. She believes the Warming Center has helped move the Martinsville community toward this goal.  

“I think we’ve had a pretty huge impact,” Johnson said, adding that she constantly hears, particularly during the winter months, how grateful people are for the center. 

“It’s really cool what can happen when you have individuals that are dedicated to helping people that are underserved in our community,” Johnson said, while adding that there are still hurdles, the largest of which are attracting volunteers. 

While the organization does have volunteers, they would like more so as to be able to fill out an entire schedule weeks ahead of time. 

“We want to be able to staff our center with volunteers that are compassionate and are willing to serve,” Johnson said, adding that the best way for people to volunteer is via a portal on their Facebook page. “If we could get volunteers to where it isn’t me begging for people last minute, we’d be able to do more.” 

It’s a frustration shared by Salyer. On the heels of one of the center’s busiest days, Salyer said the workload can become overwhelming without help. 

“It’s like last night, I had to stay until 2 in the morning,” Salyer said. “You never know what the night is going to bring.”

Dean-Paul Stephens is a reporter for Cardinal News. He is based in Martinsville. Reach him at