Keeping the homeless out of the cold

by I was a stranger and you welcomed me

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A volunteer prepares lunch at the Churches United for the Homeless shelter in Moorhead, Minn. (Paul Braun | New Earth)

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25: 35-40).

Our call to help those in need comes directly from Jesus himself. One of the greatest needs during winter, especially in the Fargo/Moorhead area, is ensuring the homeless have a warm place to seek shelter on nights when temperatures dip below zero. Several agencies that assist the homeless have established shelters in the community, serving those with varying degrees of needs. While most of these agencies assist with providing shelter until permanent housing can be found, the greatest need during the winter months is providing immediate emergency shelter.

“We in the shelter community get a little discouraged as the weather in the fall starts to get cold,” said Pastor Sue Koesterman, Executive Director at Churches United for the Homeless. “The question becomes ‘winter is coming, what are you, the shelters, going to do to care for people?’ But homeless people are our neighbors. Homelessness is not a shelter problem, it’s a community issue.”

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Rachel Ryan from Phoenix, Ariz. (Paul Braun/New Earth)

According to Pastor Sue, there are 284 homeless people in the Fargo/Moorhead area that are on a list to get into an emergency shelter when they need it. That’s why the different homeless organizations try to identify a space to handle what they call “overflow” shelters. These are temporary places set up to handle sleeping accommodations overnight. Homeless clients are screened and put on a list, ranked from most to least in need of shelter on cold winter nights. Once they are on the list, they are in the system and eligible for assistance. When a shelter bed opens up, agencies place the most vulnerable person or family who’s been waiting the longest in the next available shelter bed.

“The Wednesday before Christmas, when we saw this really bitter cold arctic front was coming in, and knowing we had 284 individuals on the unsheltered list, we all really hit the bushes and called everyone we could think of telling them we had a potential catastrophe, that someone was going to freeze to death if we don’t have overflow,” said Pastor Sue. “With the help of Mayor Williams in Moorhead, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed an emergency proclamation on December 23 allowing us to use the Moorhead National Guard Armory for emergency overflow.”

The armory was just a temporary solution through January 4. But Pastor Sue says overflow shelters need to be ready to go between mid-December and mid-March. Cold, wet conditions can cause hypothermia even when overnight temperatures are in the 30s and 40s above zero. The mayor of Dilworth offered that city’s Community Center to use as overflow until the end of January, and a local church has been found to serve as a shelter through mid-March, and may be available in future seasons.

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Paul Weeks from Xenia, Ohio. (Paul Braun/New Earth)

For the homeless affected by the frigid North Dakota winters, any place warm to stay is vital. Paul Weeks, a homeless Churches United client, says compassion and understanding is just as important as providing warmth and comfort.

“You really have to understand the kinds of problems the homeless have to go through,” said Weeks. “It’s not just drugs or having children at the wrong time, it’s people who have been dealt bad hands. What these people are seeking is solitude, a roof over their head, knowing that they don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. This means a lot to them because they don’t have to worry about being out in the ice cold. Without the shelters, it would mean death to some.”

“I usually have a car, but this year I don’t,” said Rachel Ryan, who has been homeless for a few short months. “It’s been tough. It scares me to think what would happen to me if they weren’t here. I have pneumonia right now, and they’ve helped me since I’ve been out of the hospital. I hope to transition into a permanent apartment soon.”

Rachel is typical of the kind of people Weeks says he encounters every day. They don’t know the system, and many times they don’t know how to ask for help. Weeks says it’s his calling to help those who are not familiar with the hardships of homelessness to adapt and to get the help they need, because he’s been there and knows of those hardships and challenges first-hand.

“I try to help guide those who are new to this situation,” said Weeks.

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The Dilworth Community Center preparing to take in overnight overflow guests. (Paul Braun/New Earth)

The daunting task of providing temporary and permanent shelter to many men, women and children is taken on by several local and national organizations, who have to work together if they want to avoid letting someone slip through the cracks of the system and possibly die unnecessarily.

“We all want to ensure that everyone has a safe place to stay,” said Sonja Ellner, Executive Director of the Fargo-Moorhead Dorothy Day House of Hospitality in Moorhead, Minn. “We have been working in collaboration with each other for many years to accomplish this. There is a tremendous amount of respect, communication, and coordination that goes on between shelter staff of all of the shelters on a daily basis, as we are not only trying to keep people safe but also ensure that they are at the shelter that best suits their needs.”

“Many times those who are unsheltered will sleep in a car, unoccupied buildings, some double up with family or friends, and some quite frankly trade services, like sex, for shelter,” said Pastor Sue. “Folks who are unsheltered are extremely vulnerable to traffickers and predators.”

That vulnerability is one of the primary reasons sheltering the homeless needs to be embraced by the ecumenical faith community, if only to give victims of traffickers and predators some place to escape and find self-worth. For the past six years, an ecumenical network of churches, the Fargo/Moorhead Sheltering Churches Project, offered overnight shelter in their church buildings on a weekly rotation. Some of the parishes involved from the Fargo Diocese include St. Anthony of Padua and the Cathedral of St. Mary in Fargo, and Blessed Sacrament in West Fargo. The project ended last season for a variety of reasons, mostly due to the higher amount of vulnerability and needs of the guests.

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Dorothy Day Hospitality House shelter in Moorhead, Minn. (Paul Braun/New Earth)

“We didn’t feel it was safe for guests or volunteers to shelter week after week in places staffed solely by volunteers,” said Pastor Sue. “We also lost a financial backer and our transportation services due to various restructuring of those agencies. But a lot of good came out of that project, especially increased awareness on the local shelter availability problem in the area.”

Another upside to the Sheltering Churches Project was an influx in experienced volunteers. Over 1,700 volunteers have been identified to help when called upon, and many of those continue to donate their time on a day-to-day basis at the shelters. Still, more are needed, especially at the overflow shelters.

“We have a trained staff working security through the overnight hours,” said Pastor Sue. “However, we are still reaching out for volunteers to help check guests in during the evening hours, and in the early morning hours to help folks get checked out and to clean the site for the next evening.”

“We have trained thousands of volunteers and gained an army of allies and advocates for the work we do,” said Sonja Ellner. “I believe this has fostered understanding about homelessness as well. Many churches continue to offer volunteer, in-kind, and monetary support for both overflow sheltering and to individual shelters. Homelessness is a community issue and addressing it takes a collective effort.”

While operating a year-round shelter takes an enormous amount of financial resources, overflow sheltering isn’t in most shelter budgets. It costs about $40,000 per winter season. Some of that is the cost of overnight security, transportation, staff time, commercial linen laundry, cleaning the shelter and food. Funding is the greatest need each year, according to Pastor Sue.

Lending a helping hand to those in need, through monetary support or volunteer hours, is the calling from the Gospel. For Paul Weeks, it goes further than that.

“These people are my family. God gave me a mission to do instead of ruining my life. He gave me that job! It will be my permanent job until the day I die.”

“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40).