Goal of emergency cold weather shelters: that no one who needs a place to stay at night freezes to death

Newly organized Jefferson County Homeless Coalition is applying for nonprofit status

February 05, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE |
  • Shefner

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — The emergency cold weather shelter at Zion Episcopal Church was averaging about six homeless men a night until the recent winter storm hit.

The cold wet weather drove a few more men to take advantage of a hot meal and a warm bed for the night, shelter coordinators said.

This is the first year of operation for the shelter at Zion and one at St. James Roman Catholic Church, which provides the same emergency facilities for women and children.

Alice Sudduth and Robert Shefner lead the effort at Zion Episcopal and A. Bryant Applegate coordinates the program at St. James.

The goal is to see that no one who needs a place to stay at night freezes to death.

Both shelters provide beds from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Between those hours, homeless "guests," as shelter volunteers call them, are served dinner and breakfast plus a boxed lunch to take with them when they leave. They also have shower privileges and a change of clothes if they need it, Shefner said.

The Rev. John Bethard, pastor of Charles Town Presbyterian Church, recently brought new winter boots for the homeless men at the Zion Episcopal shelter, Shefner said.

"We're learning as we go," he said. "We discovered something that we should have known — that homeless guys spend a lot of time walking around with cold, wet feet. A lot of them only have sneakers."

"These guys really appreciate this shelter," he said. "They set up their own cots, get their bedding, set the table and clean up after. They always ask, 'What can we do to help?'"

Members of the 51 churches that make up the Jefferson County Community Ministries at 238 W. Washington St. provide financial help for the shelters as well as overnight volunteers.

"One volunteer is awake all the time," Shefner said. "We want to ensure a safe place for the guests."

Volunteers from Zion Episcopal stayed in that church's shelter for the first week while some from Charles Town Presbyterian took the second week. An ecumenical group from Shepherdstown, W.Va., area churches served next.

Shefner said many of the men who come to the shelter are victims who lost jobs in the economic downturn.

"They want to work," he said. "They want to be busy."

The Zion shelter has fire-marshal-approved capacity for 15 beds, Shefner said, but 10 guests a night is about all the facility can handle since it's only been up and running for a couple of weeks.

"We're starting out small," he said.

Applegate said only two to three women a night have taken advantage of the shelter at St. James so far. There have been no children.

Women there have fallen on hard times, often due to the loss of a job or lack of family support, Applegate said.

Shelter volunteers encourage the women to take advantage of the free food, clothing and programs at the Community Ministries.

"We can't force them to go," Applegate said.

The idea for the shelters came from members of the newly organized Jefferson County Homeless Coalition who wanted to get homeless men, women and children off the streets, out of tents and cars and other makeshift living quarters.

The coalition's short-term goal is to find space for a transitional shelter, then, if and when finances allow, the purchase of a building for a permanent facility, said Bill Berry, the coalition's vice president.

The group is applying for nonprofit status so it can raise money and apply for grants, Berry said.

It's hard to pinpoint the number of homeless people in the area, church and social service agency spokespeople have said.

Single mothers fear authorities will take their children away and some men are wary of the police. Some suffer from mental illness or alcohol or drug abuse, while others are victims of hard economic times that cost them their jobs or homes.

The Rev. William P. Linhares, director of the Catholic Priest Field Pastoral Center in Middleway, W.Va., said of the homeless recently, "They are all our brothers and sisters. We have to move beyond our prejudices."

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