Faces of Homelessness through Winter Relief Shelter Program

This week our church hosted ‘winter relief emergency shelter’. Arundel House of Hope organizes a safety net of housing during the winter for our local homeless population – our church was one of many who took a week to open its doors at night to provide housing so that folks weren’t stuck sleeping in the cold. The accommodations aren’t amazing: they’re camp cots lined up in a large room. Because our church hosted both men and women, there was a divider wall in the middle of the room to separate the men’s sleeping quarters from the women. But these aren’t glamorous or even private bunks. We manage to provide hot showers 3 nights of the 7, and offer breakfast and dinner each day. In the morning, volunteers drive our guests back to Arundel House of Hope (or sometimes to the light rail or to a methadone clinic) – everyone’s up and out by 7am, not to return again until 4:30pm when they’re driven back from the House of Hope.

To pull off this week requires an enormous amount of volunteer manpower. There are three shifts of volunteers: 4-8, 8-11, and 11-8. Yep, 11-8 – to provide a safe place for our guests to sleep, we have two volunteers on site and at least one of them awake round the ‘clock. Beyond the on-site volunteers, the list of people needs includes drivers, cooks, folks to act as hosts for the shower nights, setup, teardown, prayer team, … For our small-ish church, it’s a lot of hands in.

For the past few years, I’ve worked at least one overnight shift, and often had other reasons to come visit whilst folks were more awake. Each year, we see some new faces and some familiar ones. This year, I met a mom and her high school senior son. The son attends a local public charter school and has plans to join the Coast Guard when he graduates in a few months. He likes comic books, and he and his mom spent some time playing cards together. I met a gentleman who I ended up needing to call an ambulance for, as he was in a significant amount of abdominal pain due to his stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I met another guy who showed me the business proposal estimate he was putting together on behalf of a client of his electrician business. Another guy came down the hall in his shirt and tie each morning, after shaving and prepping in the mens’ restroom. Yet another guy had us wake him up at 3am each morning so he could catch the light rail and go to its farthest stop, and then walk another 3 miles to get to his job.

Sadly, that last guy I’d met before. He was here last year, and the year before. I don’t understand why, in his particular case. There were a few others I recognize from years’ past – some who I realize face mental or other challenges that will likely keep them coming back year after year. If we (and other churches) can give them a safe warm place to be and a welcoming environment, I hope they recognize us as bearers of God’s message of love. Others give me hope that they won’t be rejoining us next year as shelter guests, but will instead keep coming ’round “only” as members of our congregation, maybe even joining the ranks of us putting out the welcome mat again in 2019.

If you’ve gotten to the end here and want to learn more, I’d encourage you to check out Arundel House of Hope’s site. They work in a number of ways with the local homeless community, so I sent you to their front page. The direct page for the winter relief program, along with reports of how things have gone in previous years and contact info for getting involved, is here. It’s an amazing program, which enables the volunteer efforts of many to unite into a safety net for those whom society often overlooks. Arundel House of Hope puts their mission to our guests as ‘To keep those experiencing homelessness in the Baltimore/Annapolis corridor from freezing to death during the Winter months and to show them the Divine’s love in simple practical ways during our time together.’ I’m pretty convinced that both of those are pursuits worthy of time and energy.

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