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Advocates asking churches to open as cold weather shelters this winter

Springfield News-Leader (Missouri) logo Springfield News-Leader (Missouri) 9/13/2020 Jackie Rehwald, Springfield News-Leader
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While the most recent point-in-time count found 540 unsheltered homeless people in and around Springfield, advocates say there are more than 600 individuals out there. They are sleeping on the streets, in abandoned buildings, in tents, under tarps and in vehicles.

Cold weather will be here soon and because of the pandemic, the two emergency cold weather shelters will only be allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity.

That means on nights when the temperature dips below freezing, 50 men will be allowed to stay at East Sunshine Church of Christ's shelter and 15 women will be allowed to sleep at Grace United Methodist Church's shelter. 

Advocates and service providers are asking other churches to consider opening their doors on the coldest nights to allow some homeless people to spend the night. 

A committee of sheltering experts, so to speak, has been formed for the purpose of helping and supporting any interested church willing to make at least a one-month commitment to being a cold weather shelter site. The shelters would only operate on nights the National Weather Service predicts freezing overnight temps. 

Committee members include Connecting Grounds pastor Christie Love; Kelly Harris, director of Safe to Sleep (a year-round overnight shelter for women); Karen Mizell, volunteer coordinator for East Sunshine's emergency shelter; Ronda Galbraith, pastor at Grace United; and Amanda Stadler, with Community Partnership of the Ozarks. 

a police car parked in a parking lot: Small groups of homeless men load into vans at the Connecting Grounds before heading to separate venues where 8 of them can sleep overnight on Friday, March 20, 2020. The men's shelters closed due to the coronavirus and with temperatures dropping below freezing on Friday night, area churches and other facilities opened their doors so the men could sleep inside. © Andrew Jansen/News-Leader Small groups of homeless men load into vans at the Connecting Grounds before heading to separate venues where 8 of them can sleep overnight on Friday, March 20, 2020. The men's shelters closed due to the coronavirus and with temperatures dropping below freezing on Friday night, area churches and other facilities opened their doors so the men could sleep inside.

"As faith leaders and the faith community, when we are called to follow the red letters of Jesus, we are not called to be comfortable or to be convenient," Love said. "The sheer look of panic in a person's eyes when you start to talk about cold weather right now, it will grab you and it will keep you up at night. 

"I've got grown men right now who are sweating in 90 degree heat and sunburned, who that is their biggest fear right now: What is going to happen when it gets cold," she continued. "And it's going to get cold much quicker than any of us want it to."

In a Zoom meeting this week, the committee talked about the kinds of services and guidance they want to offer. Churches could adopt similar rules and procedures as the existing cold weather shelters, and the committee would help navigate the city's shelter inspection process and train volunteers.

"We definitely will support (churches) through the experience of Grace and East Sunshine," Stadler said. "Those policies and procedures we can provide to you so you are not having to reinvent the wheel."

If the church is near a school, Stadler said it's possible to get a waiver from the city to open as a shelter — just as Grace United did. Grace United Methodist Church, which is close to St. Agnes Elementary School, has the women up and out the doors by 7 a.m. The women are not allowed to loiter on the property and are given bus passes to be on their way.

East Sunshine Christian Church has operated a cold-weather shelter for men for the past 10 years. In recent years, the shelter would be at or near its capacity of 100 men. There, men have cots and were fed a light dinner. 

This year, though, food will not be served to prevent the men from crowding. Cots will be placed six feet apart and only 50 men will be allowed in the building.

Mizell said many of the church's shelter volunteers are older and cannot volunteer this year due to being at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Women volunteers can help get folks settled in the evening and help get the men out the door in the mornings, but at least two men are needed to stay overnight.

a man holding a phone: Connecting Grounds volunteer JR Chappell takes the temperature of a homeless person before they are transported to an emergency cold weather shelter on April 13. © Nathan Papes/Springfield News-Leader Connecting Grounds volunteer JR Chappell takes the temperature of a homeless person before they are transported to an emergency cold weather shelter on April 13.

Men and women can volunteer at the women's shelter, where two volunteers are needed to spend the night. There are no cots at the women's shelter, only foam yoga mats. 

Volunteers take turns sleeping in four-hour shifts.

This year, temperatures will be taken before people are allowed inside. The committee hasn't determined exactly what the protocol will be if someone has a fever, but they are working on it. 

Ideally, any church that opens up as a cold-weather shelter would be able to pull volunteers from its congregation. If not, Love said her church and outreach group would be able to help. 

"We have a relatively large volunteer pool of about 500 people who are really interested in being involved with helping this population," Love said. "Their hearts are really stirred and burdened, as well, for cold weather season."

If the church can supply its own volunteers, Love said she is happy to serve as a coach to train and advise volunteers who maybe have never worked with the homeless population, as well as being an "on-call" resource for shelters. 

"If you have a situation come up and you are not sure what to do or what that can look like, we would love to be able to help support you in that way as well," she said. 

More: SGF churches opened to homeless men on freezing night during coronavirus

Advocates faced a similar dilemma in April, when the temperatures dipped below freezing and the city had banned gatherings of no more than 10 people due to COVID-19. 

Love personally called pastors of other churches and asked if they would open as mini-overnight shelters. Five shelters opened up on four nights in April.

The first night the mini shelters opened, the fire marshal visited each building to do inspections.

The model worked well, but the committee is hoping to get churches to make a commitment now so they can begin planning how to handle transportation, inspections, communication and volunteer training.

About 150 people sought shelter at those churches in April. Love expects the number seeking shelter will be higher this winter.

a person standing in front of a car: Pastor Christie Love talks with a driver transporting homeless people to emergency cold weather shelters outside the Connecting Grounds on April 13. © Nathan Papes/Springfield News-Leader Pastor Christie Love talks with a driver transporting homeless people to emergency cold weather shelters outside the Connecting Grounds on April 13.

"Right now at outreach, I don't think we've had a week without new faces in quite a while. We are constantly seeing new people," Love said. "A lot of times what we are seeing is people who have been doubled up. Maybe they have been staying with family or friends. And for whatever reasons, COVID has just really put a strain on those living situations and they have had to leave."

Safe to Sleep, the year-round overnight shelter for women, also needs volunteers.

"We had a 70 percent loss in volunteers this year," Harris said during the Zoom meeting. "A lot of our volunteers who do this sort of thing are in that vulnerable category."

Harris went on to talk about the need for churches to provide shelter space this winter.

"We know this is a huge ask," Harris said. "I'm hoping and praying that some folks are able to meet this need with all the added challenges of a pandemic.

"We are very aware of what it takes to operate shelters," she said. "It's not an easy process, but it is possible. We want to make sure that you guys know this group is committed to supporting you, if you decide to do this."

"It isn't always fun, but it's rewarding in its very own special ways," Harris said. "It's being the hands and feet of Jesus."

Want to help?

If your church is interested in learning more about possibly opening as an emergency cold weather shelter, email Amanda Stadler at astadler@cpozarks.org.

If you are interested in volunteering at East Sunshine Church of Christ's emergency cold weather shelter for men, call 417-889-5455 and leave your name and phone number.

If you are interested in volunteering at Safe to Sleep, email Jessica Luraas at jluraas@ccozarks.org.

To find other ways to help the homeless community, join the Connecting Grounds outreach group on Facebook. To find the page, search "TCG Outreach volunteers."

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Advocates asking churches to open as cold weather shelters this winter

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