Making a home for the homeless on cold winter nights

Home for Homeless

More than 150 people engaged in training to become volunteers at the Code Blue Shelter.

When winter temperatures dropped below freezing, Bucks County, unlike surrounding counties, did not have a shelter to protect homeless persons on these cold nights.

So, Penny Martin, a Christ Servant Minister and Stephen Minister at Emilie UMC, decided to change that.  She initiated a team effort to contact area churches and local organizations to see what could be done by the faith community to meet the need.

What Penny found was that several churches were already providing short-term housing and hospitality to the homeless through Interfaith Housing Network, and some were providing hot meals, but there was nowhere to go when the wind chill dropped below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature which the Health Department calls “Code Blue.”

Penny networked, contacting local churches, service organizations, and government offices. Bucks County Commissioner Diane Marseglia took a proposal to form Advocates for Homeless and Those in Need to the County Commission, where it was accepted by unanimous vote.  Advocates for Homeless and Those in Need (AHTN), was ready to begin a month later, opening on the weekend of December 18, 2009, when the first major snowfall of this very cold and snowy winter arrived. Penny continues as Program Coordinator.

“We just watched God do this,” said Sandy Mullican, a Red Cross Disaster Relief volunteer and member of Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Resurrection.  She was speaking of how it all came together in six short weeks.  Sandy had just completed instruction of approximately 60 Code Blue volunteers, using an American Red Cross manual modified for the purpose by Bill Burns of the Red Cross Homeless Shelter in Levittown.

For homeless persons in tent encampments, people that have lost their homes in the economic down-turn, those who have fled abuse, and others AHTN provided shelter on dangerously cold nights.  On bitter cold nights, drivers picked up guests at predetermined locations on a route that covered Bristol, Morrisville, Levittown, and the Penndel areas and drove them back in the morning.

After transportation to the site, guests shared an evening meal with volunteers, and had a warm, secure place to sleep. In the morning there was a hot breakfast, and guests left with a brown-bag lunch for the day. While the shelter could not accommodate pets – unless they are trained service animals – animal bedding and pet food were also available thru a dog club for guests’ animals, and went out to them in the vans. Pastoral counseling was offered to guests, and referrals were made for medical and social services. After breakfast, guests were dropped of at a resource center or are taken back to the pick-up locations.

In its first season, the number of guests at Bucks County Code Blue ranged from 5 to 25 adults per night, with an average of 15 or 16 enjoying the shelter’s hospitality and fellowship.

These are interdenominational ministries.  In Bucks County, four churches housed the shelter over the winter, one month per church: Langhorne Terrace Ministries, United Christian, Emmaus Road Lutheran, and Woodside Presbyterian. United Methodist Churches involved include Emile, Fairless Hills, Fallsington, Bristol First, Langhorne, and Christ UMC. Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and Society of Friends congregations are also involved.

As more Bucks County churches became involved, spin-off ministries have emerged, including a “Rejuvenation Station” on Wednesdays, where guests could eat a light lunch and take a shower.  AHTN intends to advocate for affordable housing in the area, and address the root causes of homelessness.  United Methodists have applied for Community of Shalom status, and for an Advance number for the ministry.  Similarly, in Montgomery County, a Code Blue Shelter sprang up in Lansdale to serve those in need in the eastern portion of the county, for whom the County shelter in Norristown is too distant. Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church houses the shelter, which arose from a discernment process as the congregation sought to identify new ministries needed in their community.  In Lansdale, while the shelter is housed at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, in addition to Trinity’s members, volunteers and support have come from the following congregations: St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie; Christ UMC, Lansdale; Lansdale UMC; Chestnut Hill UMC; Mary, Mother of the Redeemer Roman Catholic Church, North Wales; and Pleasantville United Church of Christ.

A true community has grown up in and around the shelters.  As volunteers and guests shared time, life stories, food and companionship, lives have been transformed and friendships forged that transcend the roles of “helpers” and “those in need of help.”  Jan Adkins, Lay Leader at Fallsington United Methodist Church, said “One of our guests asked me if I feared God.  I told him that I trust God.  He said, ‘Trust God.  I like that.’”

Currently AHTN has about 250 registered volunteers, including some who learned about the program as guests. Jan Adkins created AHTN’s website: www.advocates4homeless.org.  If you are interested in volunteering, donating, or would like assistance from AHTN in setting up a similar program in another part of Bucks County, please contact Penny Martin, Program Coordinator, atadvocates4homeless@gmail.com or call 215-550-3868.

Further information about volunteering at the Montgomery County shelter, contact Deacon Rebecca Kolowe at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 215-368-1710, ext. 256, or Terri Gillespie at 215-740- 6429.

by Lynn Jaeger

Lynn Jaeger and her husband, Gary, are the East District Disaster Response Ministry Coordinators.