Sep 26, 2023 | John W. Coleman

Otterbein United Methodist Church in Lancaster will open its spacious, rarely used fellowship hall as a year-round emergency, overnight shelter for homeless neighbors starting December 1, in response to an urgent appeal from the city.

The historic church will have up to 40 beds available every night from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. in what will become the city’s second “low-barrier entry shelter.” That means guests can enter and stay the night with minimal restrictions or requirements, like passing a drug test.

The Lancaster County Housing and Redevelopment Authority is looking for a nonprofit service
provider to oversee daily operations.

Homelessness in the county has risen by 11 percent, with 526 people reported to be experiencing homelessness this year and 107 people living on the streets. The increase spurred advocates to call for more needed, low-barrier shelters.

“I believe we are living the call to meet Jesus in the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner, as Matthew 25 reminds us,” said Otterbein’s pastor the Rev. Jonette Gay. “We have never done anything like this before, other than provide a monthly community meal before the COVID pandemic.”

But Otterbein has always had a reputation for social justice, she said. “This fits in with our mission and concern for the community and how we are to be the church.”

The Lancaster County Food Hub currently operates the city’s only low-barrier shelter in a local Baptist church, and it is full with a waiting list. Otterbein’s shelter will complete a joint city/county effort to add shelter beds in the city, in addition to a wraparound services hub for unhoused residents set to open next fall.

“Housing is one of the most important ministry needs in Lancaster,” Gay explained. “I do not believe it is good stewardship to allow our building to be closed to the community, when sharing our sacred space is a way to live our faith in word and deed.

“Jesus said, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” she recalled. “This is in solidarity with our Lord.”