Winter homeless program needs help

Something unexpected happened this winter when community organizers for the homeless population asked regular folks to help provide the less fortunate with an alternative to sleeping out in the cold.

It’s a time during which they run the risk of freezing to death.

As the numbers of people needing help swelled at the Homeward Bound homeless shelter, volunteers from area churches opened their doors and hearts to provide a warm place to stay and maybe some food.

Now that flowers are starting to grow where snow had been, many of those early volunteers are maxed out, and organizers seek about 14 others to pull a shift or two to get the Emergency Shelter Program through its last weeks.

“It’s not work,” said Naomi Barlow, who has been a regular volunteer. “What would I be doing in the evenings anyway?”

Barlow is taking four shifts in the coming weeks while about 10 screened homeless men will be sleeping at First Baptist Church, 720 Grand Ave., from tonight through March 28, the end of the program.

But Barlow can’t do it alone.

Two volunteers are needed each night at the church to set out food, oversee the men as they perform chores in exchange for their stay and to generally provide an overnight presence.

Volunteers need not belong to the Baptist church or another local congregation.

While the program offers the homeless men a respite from the often noisy and crowded homeless shelter, it has changed perceptions about what it is to be homeless.

“When we started recruiting people in December, people were wary, but they were in the giving spirit,” said Karen Sjoberg, director of Grand Valley Peace and Justice, a nonprofit group that has been heading the effort. “We need that spirit to carry us through the spring. It’s opened a lot of eyes. We’re just trying to find people a place to sleep. They’re just like us, but have more troubles.”

During January, volunteers at local churches took in up to 36 homeless men, at one point operating out of two churches.

Offering alternative overnight housing for the men frees up space in the shelter for a growing number of families, said Jordan McGinnis, director of Homeward Bound.

Six to eight small families are staying at the shelter, and that number may rise if the economy continues its downward spiral.

The temporary wintertime overflow program to area churches will probably continue next winter as funding for an expansion of the shelter at 2853 North Ave. isn’t likely to occur any time soon, McGinnis said.

The county-funded shelter was created as a way to keep homeless residents from freezing to death.

Its summer program is intended to be a much smaller, transitional program, getting people help with county services and hopefully into their own homes.

But as the needs increase, organizers are wondering what the rest of the year will bring.

Two years ago, the shelter’s summer program aided 11 people, but last summer up to 90 people were housed there after paying fees. The largest growing population continues to be women with children, and those clients have the least amount of room at the facility. There isn’t an outside area for children to play, and being confined to a small space causes behavioral issues.

“It’s never not busy,” McGinnis said of the shelter this year. “I’m kind of at a loss for what we do if we put a cap on those numbers (of clients). The next two months are really going to be telling of who shows up and the need.”


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