Shelter from the storm
By Lou Fancher
For some people, it boosts their spirits to look beyond differences and help others.
Channeling that energy to run the annual October-to-May Winter Nights program that provides warm shelter and services to homeless families with children, literally hundreds of participants from faith communities in Central and East Contra Costa County become members of “one body.”
“Our volunteers keep coming back every year because they feel it’s something they can do. I’ve been doing it for 12 years,” said Delores Loague, 81, volunteer coordinator at Concord United Methodist Church. “I understand that anybody can be homeless. Something can happen in our lives, too. It feels important to make someone’s life a little better.”
Host communities provide space, meals and volunteers who cook, clean, serve meals, stay overnight, play with and read to children, and form connections whose rewards are reciprocal.
There are tents for family privacy, bedding, linens and 24-hour supervisory staff who offer job counseling, bus and BART tickets for working adults, tutors and transport to school for children, access to showers and medical clinics, and support leading to self-sufficiency and finding permanent housing.
Program beginningsThe Social Justice Alliance of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County project was founded 14 years ago by then-executive director Gwen Watson, a member of Christ the King Church in Pleasant Hill.
Since then, the program has grown to include 40 congregations. Last year, 75 people were sheltered. The $184,000 cost for the program (in 2016) comes two-thirds from donations, one-third from foundations.
Loague said that although theirs is “an older group,” she never has difficulty finding people who’ll stay overnight or get up at 5 a.m. to serve breakfast.
“We’re sleeping on air mattresses on the floor, just like they are,” said Loague, “but I’ve never had to beg for volunteers.”
Of course, it’s not just “old folks,” Loague was quick to add. A Boy Scout troop helps each year and a group of local high school kids is looking for a way to become involved.
She said the most common thing that surprises new volunteers is how motivated the adults are to find housing and jobs if they aren’t employed.
“Most often, they’re homeless because of an illness or they’ve rented a house and the owner decides to sell it so they’re just put out on the street. They want to fix their situation.”
At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Sue Phalen said that of the 26 people who stayed at the Walnut Creek church this year, the majority of the adults had jobs.
“These are folks working for below-poverty wages. They’ve had circumstances like their landlord has been foreclosed upon and they can’t afford the first and last month deposit on a new rental.”
Phalen appreciates that the Winter Nights program sets clear boundaries, not just for the guests, but for the volunteers.
“It’s a dignity thing. We respect their privacy. If they choose to share their stories, that’s cool. With our resources we can help them, but we’re never to overstep our bounds with the safety and the privacy of our guests.”
A program manager operating at each site helps families set weekly goals.
“One goal might be to communicate with (our) traveling tutors about their children’s school progress,” said executive director Judy Stillman. “Another would be to obtain a driver’s license, get a car in running order, help put their credit in better shape, update a resumé, seek employment, apply to Shelter, Inc. to find housing.”
Volunteer partnershipsBrian McCoy said the available space at St. Ignatius of Antioch is too small to host a Winter Nights, now that the program has grown. But that hasn’t prevented the members from partnering with congregations that have larger facilities.
St. Ignacius provides weekly laundry service and shower facilities and travels to other locations to offer meals and volunteers. Partnering this year along with other co-hosting groups at Community Presbyterian in Pittsburg, McCoy said the biggest thing that members get out of the program is that it breaks down their idea of what constitutes a homeless person.
“There’s a human face behind the statistics. There are children who go to bed in a shelter, parents who get up early to go to work, then come home to a shelter.”
During more than a decade of involvement, “offshoots” have sprung up at St. Ignacius: expanded food donations, a community garden from which produce is harvested and shared with underserved communities.
For McCoy, the hardest part of Winter Nights is not getting kids to do homework, it’s saying goodbye when their guests depart.
“We develop real connection. When they leave, the tension is palpable. But our role is nuts-and-bolts. The Winter Nights staff has the hardest part: finding permanent housing for families.”