Emergency Shelters for the Homeless Go Year Round
by Janine Unsoeld
Advocates for the homeless are a devoted, seemingly tireless, loose connection of social service organizations, faith communities and people concerned about homeless issues.
Recently, many have eloquently spoken up, some for the first time, at Olympia city council meetings in response to ordinances that move homeless campers away from city hall property and criminalize sitting or lying on sidewalks.
Much of their work is behind-the-scenes for most of us, but very much on the front lines for those who need it most.
In a spot of good news in what is a daunting, ongoing issue for the community, these advocates, along with area congregations, have now made it possible for emergency shelters to be open year round. Funding to take this new step came from Thurston County and United Way.
The new shelter coordinator, Laurian Weissner, coordinates locations and their schedules. His part time paid position with Interfaith Works is currently funded for one year.
"Traditionally, the shelters for homeless men and women have operated seasonally during the cold weather months, ending in February for men, and ending in March for women," said Weissner, in an interview today.
Weissner says that in order for the shelters to be operational year round, current participating churches host twice a year. He has the women's shelters tentatively scheduled through the beginning of May and is appealing for two or three more congregations to "step-up" and help host the shelter.
Weissner urged that anyone needing emergency shelter should call (360) 515-5620. He also emphasized that people will not be denied shelter for theological reasons, meaning, they will not be required to participate in any religious ceremonies sponsored by the host church.
The women's shelter provides 18 beds for the homeless women, while the men's shelter provides 12 beds. Unused beds at the women's shelter are also available to families when the Family Shelter is full.
Local churches shelter homeless women in two week rotation cycles. St. Michael Parish on Olympia's eastside and Sacred Heart Parish in Lacey shelter homeless men. Coordination and screening to house the men and women is done through Sidewalk, Olympia's homeless advocacy and support center, and Interfaith Works.
The women's shelter is currently at The Lutheran Church of Good Shephard, on North Street in Olympia.
The women's emergency overflow shelter provided 1,786 bed-nights of shelter in winter 2011-12, hosted on a rotating basis by 12 different congregations. The shelter is now officially called the "Women's Interfaith Shelter."
"Usage of the shelter in November 2012 was about double the volume of the previous year," said Danny Kadden, executive director of Interfaith Works, in an email to Little Hollywood yesterday.
"After 22 years of operating various types of winter-only shelters, we heard a growing chorus of our faith community members seeking ways to serve the year-round needs of unsheltered people. With funding in hand from the County and United Way, Interfaith Works will begin in Spring 2013 operating the faith-based shelters for both men and women every night of the year. This will require significantly more volunteers and participating churches and temples than ever before, but we are all determined to fill this gap in our shelter system," said Kadden.
There are few alternatives for women without Interfaith Works' shelter involvement. The Salvation Army has only 14 beds for single women and has limitations on the length of their stays. Bread and Roses can only serve 12 women at a time and sometimes has a waiting list.
The system is complicated for all who are involved. Apart from the Salvation Army and Interfaith Works' shelter, youth 22 years or younger are served by Community Youth Services. Families are served by the Family Support Center, and women fleeing domestic violence are served by Safeplace.
When and if Olympia's Smith building on 8th Avenue is operational, it will have family transitional housing on top, and a family shelter on the bottom. That's the long-range vision. Funding for it is significant.
Advocate Christie Kruger
Christie Kruger, a longtime, trained volunteer advocate for the homeless, urges more churches to become involved in hosting the homeless.
"Churches do not have to be a member of Interfaith Works to participate in the rotation, but they preferrably need to be on a bus line."
Kruger serves the homeless in multiple roles as an in-take coordinator at Sidewalk, conducting brief interviews with people who walk-in needing housing or referrals to other resources. She also assigns clients to other volunteers for longer term advocacy. Sidewalk advocates help clients fill out applications, apply for state and federal benefits and find housing.
"There's layers and layers of work, depending on their situation. It can be overwhelming." Kruger does suffer from burn-out from time to time, but it doesn't last long.
She's also an overnight host at the women's shelter operated by Interfaith Works. Volunteer hosts check in the shelter guests, spend the night at the church with them, and do laundry. Two hosts sleep over each night. One of the hosts needs to be a woman. Shelter hours are from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. with lights out at 10 p.m.
As if that's not enough, she also schedules volunteer hosts for Camp Quixote, the homeless "tent city" that rotates from church to church.
Kruger, who has an approachable, friendly style, spent several nights with the women when St. John's Episcopal Church hosted the women's shelter from November 30 to December 13.
"Reaching out to the poor is a basic tenant of almost every faith...it's in their ministry," says Kruger.
"One of the benefits of doing this type of work is breaking down stereotypes and stigmas. Participating congregations will find they create and enrich a sense of community in their hosts as well as for the guests who might otherwise be outcast or socially isolated."
"If the homeless don't get screened into a shelter, where can they sleep safely, or at all? That's what it comes down to...." says Kruger.
SideWalk will be having a volunteer training in January. Go to www.walkthurston.org and click "volunteer" to sign up for training or find out more information.
Sidewalk is currently looking for volunteers to serve as greeters, hospitality volunteers, volunteer support specialists, advocates, and intake specialists. Volunteers can give as much or as little as they are able, though most of Sidewalk's work is done during business hours, Monday- Thursday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
For more information, contact Emma Margraf, Community Outreach Manager at Sidewalk at (360) 515-5587 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interfaith Works has comprehensive information, including a calendar of events and activities, on their website at www.oly-wa.us/interfaith.