Churches offer shelter from stereotypes

Mike Rockert probably never would have met Sam Wentling Sr. if not for an effort led by local churches to keep some of the area’s homeless from sleeping in the cold this winter or freezing to death.

Rockert wouldn’t have known that Wentling, like many other local homeless people, keeps a full-time job and is trying to get his life back together.

“My lifestyle and his lifestyle don’t match,” Wentling said in a room at Valley Church, which had been filled on a recent night with about a dozen military cots draped with blankets and pillows.

“They’ve made us feel human again,” Wentling said of Rockert and other parishioners, who have opened their church at night for the past two weeks to guests of the HomewardBound homeless shelter. “They’ve gone out of their way to make us feel like we’ve got some pride again.”

Pride has been in short supply at HomewardBound,  2843 North Ave. The place has been packed since frigid temperatures set in. A surge of families and children has some people sleeping on the shelter’s floor or being turned away at night if it takes in its maximum 110 guests. A cacophony of coughing, snoring and talking, coupled simply with the sheer number of folks crammed into tight quarters, would quickly grate on anyone’s nerves.

The opportunity to find some relative peace at night in area churches has been a lifesaver for some homeless men. The arrangement also is helping quash some stereotypes the public has long felt about the homeless.

Dirty. Lazy. Dishonest. Drunk. Nameless.

Those were some words Jordan McGinnis heard during a training session last Saturday when he asked 20 volunteers what came to mind when they think about homeless people.

McGinnis is director of the HomewardBound shelter and an organizer for the Emergency Shelter Program.

He said the church volunteers were briefed about what to expect when homeless men come to spend the night at their churches. Although they were accustomed to seeing the guy on the corner holding a sign, begging for a handout, or the person drunk in the park, McGinnis assured them those people didn’t represent the homeless population.

Homeless people who fly signs make up only a tiny percent of the population, he said. And the men sent to churches through the Emergency Shelter Program would not be drunk.

“These guys are so protective of the church because they don’t want to screw it up,” McGinnis said. “I wouldn’t send you anybody I wouldn’t want at the shelter.”

Some of the homeless men at the North Avenue shelter arise at 4 a.m., and because it’s too early for bus service, they walk two miles downtown to a company that arranges temporary day labor. If they find work for the day, they might miss out on lunch at the nearby Catholic
Outreach soup kitchen. And if they work, it might be impossible to make it back to North Avenue before 6 p.m.,when it’s time again to stand in line and wait to see whether they will be accepted inside for the night. Arrive late and risk losing a place to stay. The shelter, which does not have funding for food, may run out of the hot dinners provided a few times a week by local volunteers.

“To call these people lazy tends to be really silly, is what I think,” McGinnis said. 

That’s about the same conclusion of Roger Koch. A parishioner of First Presbyterian Church,
Koch admitted he was leery at first about volunteering to stay up all night to watch over indigent strangers he had never met.

“It was kind of scary to start with,” Koch said. “It was fear of the unknown. You always hear stories the homeless person this or the homeless person that. Or, you’re going to be mugged crossing the park. You hear of ominous situations, but homeless people are just like you and me.”

Koch and his wife have a bit of experience in this arena. They have been volunteering once a month for the past nine years serving food at Catholic Outreach’s soup kitchen. Koch also worked with other church members this summer on remodeling a trailer, readying it for a homeless family.

But having the chance to meet and talk with homeless men who stayed at St. Matthew’s Episcopalian Church was quite a different experience. Koch spoke with a man about his yo-yo drug addiction, something that began when the man was 10 while his mother, a prostitute, fed him a steady diet of drugs to keep him quiet.

Another man asked a tricky question: “What is the Trinity?” It launched church volunteers and their guests into a thoughtful conversation about the belief in the delicate balance of God, the Holy Spirit and Jesus.

“They put their pants on just like you and I,” Koch said. “Some are mentally ill. Others are sick.

Some have problems they did to themselves. Others have problems from what happened to them.”

Conversations with the men got Koch and others thinking about where homeless families, including young mothers with children, could stay during the day. Where could someone go
during the day to sleep off the flu?

And, what was the best way to house homeless people who have been drinking alcohol? As a rule, neither HomewardBound nor the Rescue Mission, 550 South Ave., allow people shelter if they’ve been drinking. However, Koch and others can’t shake the fact that 15 local homeless people died in 2008, and four have died already this year. Some of those people were addicted to alcohol and died after sleeping outside in the cold.

“Maybe what we really need is a big room to go in and sleep it off,” Koch said. “I’ve been pondering: How can you help these people? I don’t think anybody wants them to sleep out under the sagebrush or down by the railroad tracks. At some point you have to say, ‘Is it worth them dying or not?’ ”

Some community members are paying more attention to the issue.

The homeless overflow program was started by Grand Valley Peace & Justice, a nondenominational faith-based group. It has increased conversation between area churches and provided volunteers an unexpected sense of satisfaction of helping out.

Still, needs persist, McGinnis said. Having some homeless men jockeyed around town to stay in area churches requires multiple trips in the shelter’s minivan, something that would require fewer trips in a larger vehicle. The HomewardBound shelter has been filling so quickly lately that two churches may be needed simultaneously for housing everyone during the winter.

The emergency shelter program has been set up so that churches are used on a rotating basis every two weeks.

HomewardBound has plans to expand, but it is about $400,000 shy of its costs for construction and extra staffing, McGinnis said. He expects the overflow program will be necessary to do again next winter.

“The more community interaction we can get, the more people that can be housed,” he said. “People get this time to realize these are all real people. This homeless stigma is unfounded.”

At Valley Church on Thursday night, some of the 18 men said they were disappointed to not be able to see some of the church volunteers with whom they had become fast friends. From about 7:30 to 10 p.m., the men watched movies or readied for bed, brushing their teeth or padding quietly down the long carpeted halls to separate rooms. After tonight, the group, some of whom may be the same, will head to the First Congregational Church for the next 14 days.

John Peay said he’s getting organized to sign up for government housing. Local rental prices, which can top $1,000 for a three-bedroom mobile home, aren’t within his price range. Peay isn’t shy about thanking his church hosts, saying he’d be honored to have Rockert over sometime for dinner. Peay was thrilled to stay the night at some place other than the shelter, a place he likened to the book, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

“You almost have to laugh at it. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry,” he said about the stress of living in close quarters. “This is like heaven on earth compared to the shelter.”


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