It is difficult to imagine a life without shelter. It is a necessity so basic, and the efforts of people to ensure its existence are so ingrained, that most Americans will never sit in the rain, the snow, or the bitter cold and simply have no place to go. Homelessness makes rain, cold, sleet and snow exist in a different way, no longer an unpleasant interlude, but the overwhelming fact of one’s life, or even death. In the cold, you pray for shelter.
“My coming here was a godsend,” said Elizabeth Gaudioso, one of the guests on the last night of the 60 day Hypothermia Project, “because here the prayers get answered that for years had been ignored.”
For 60 days in February and March, the Hypothermia Project gave cold people the knowledge they would sleep warm. It ended this Friday. The endeavor was a partnership involving Volunteers in Community (VIC), which provided volunteers every night, New Hope Housing, providing structure and paid employees to oversee the operation, and Fairfax County, which is funding the endeavor. Rising Hope Methodist Church offered to host the project each night.
The project was brief, but intense. The shelter was open every night to 20 people, though on cold nights this was often stretched to 24. It was always in the same place, always serving dinner and breakfast provided by hundreds of volunteers from various churches. There is a consensus in the community that the consistency of the program’s structure and its location in Rising Hope made it more effective than similar projects that rotate to different places. Many volunteers came repeatedly, giving the homed and the homeless an opportunity to share meals together.
“It makes you more aware of people living on the edge. As you drive down Route 1 you think, ‘Gee, I wonder if that’s one of the people we’re helping.’ Your comfort zone is questioned,” said Joan Coe, part of a group from Heritage Presbyterian Church, which was providing volunteers on the project’s final night. She described seeing a young man leaving the building early on a Saturday morning after her first night volunteering. It was a cold, drizzly February day. He was wearing a tee-shirt.
Several volunteers expressed gratitude at the opportunity to participate. “It gave me an idea of what the homeless population is. It opened my eyes… It’s been a valuable service. We enjoyed it,” said Reid Graham.
Bob Trimble, who was helping out for the third time, understood the experience as “an opportunity for many of us to meet and understand the needs of less fortunate people in our community.”
James Darden, the custodian at Rising Hope, was in a conversation about the project’s final night, “And I’m glad it’s over with,” he said. “I’m glad.” He has reason to be, he spent every night during the last 60 days, from Feb. 1 – March 31, on a cot in the church. For the first month and a half he never left the building, so he would always be available if the volunteers had any problems. Because he still held his job during normal hours, he was working at Rising Hope for 18 hours a day. “Since this program, this has been my home,” he said. He meant this literally. After the weekend, which he planned to spend visiting his sister in North Carolina, he will have to go in search of permanent housing. “I’m trying to get a new home,” he said. “I got to find me a bed.” With his permanent custodial job, however, Darden says he can afford to find himself a reasonably priced apartment.
“I USED TO BE DOWN and stuff too, you know what I’m saying, and I got up.” He is grateful to Rising Hope for employing him, but even more grateful that it accepted him into its community when he needed acceptance. “The main thing I like – you can come as you are… You can come in cold raw and they don’t look at you like you’re an outcast… This is a true church here because they say to come as you are and people come as they are.”
He is honored by the responsibility he was given for the last two months. “The Reverend [Keary Kincannon] asked me, ‘Would you do it, you’d be a good candidate. But you can’t miss a night… The reverend asked me to do it and I did it. Thank the Lord.”
When the volunteers cannot handle a situation, they turn to Darden. “Some of the volunteers ain’t seen nothing like this and they’re halfway uptight about it, halfway scared.” Darden tells clients, “You got to go in there and lay down or you got to go out the door.” He treats everyone equally. “Some of my best friends come here. But this is business. There ain’t no favoritism.” He has called the police and the rescue squad on occasions. But he says, “There haven’t been no fights.”
Most of the clients served by the project avoid other shelters. “Some people don’t like responsibility. They can’t abide by rules,” Darden explains. But he has no patience for clients that cause trouble. “You disrespect Jesus and me.”
As the weeks went by, and volunteers became more experienced, Darden had to intervene less and less frequently. The volunteers “have changed tremendously. I was trying to show them the way,” he said. “They’re picking up from what I do.” That’s a good thing, “because I need a break.”
Darden now feels comfortable leaving the church for short periods. But he says he never goes more than 1,000 feet away, and he carries two cell phones. “They make me feel good that I can go out and do that. It took a month and half – two months before I got comfortable so I could go.
He has developed close relationships with many of the volunteers. “We talk like brothers and sisters. That makes you feel good. Somebody to love you.”
“You’re doing it for God. This is God’s house. I feel tired sometimes… but I got the best boss there is. I know I can’t go wrong with it. I feel better about myself, dress better. When you’re doing something good, you get something in return.”
“It’s beautiful. It’s sweet,” says Wilson Shifflett, a guest. “These people care… That’s how I feel from there to here,” he adds, pointing to his head and his heart.
“I love what they do here… Some places don’t do this. This is not even a shelter. This is God’s world… I could have been out on the sidewalk” but “I’m on a pad and a sleeping bag… When I wake up, I’m happy. I could be out on the sidewalk, not waking up.”
Gaudioso praised Rising Hope, “Unlike any church in the area, they give hands on charity with the community right in front of them… They ask how they’re family is doing and ask them to come back to the church and know God… Everyone gets the opportunity to start over again. People lose everything, they come here… They can learn what is available to them so maybe they don’t die on the street feeling nobody cares.”
She described an acquaintance, a veteran, who started attending Rising Hope. “He was able to feel welcome into church, welcome into his own life.”
The Hypothermia Project “kept me alive during winter.” Now she worries about the summer. “Are you going to open up a heatstroke clinic after this?” she asks Ollie Dawson, an employee of New Hope Housing who works full-time at their Kennedy shelter and lends her expertise to the Hypothermia Project on Friday nights.
“I THINK this particular program brought a lot of people out of the woods,” Dawson said, people who don’t want a shelter environment.” She credits this to the size of the shelter, which is much smaller than most. Usually there are four or five women and 15-17 men. Another reason is the inconvenience of permanent shelter locations. Dawson said 80 percent of the guests in Rising Hope have told her that the Kennedy Shelter is too far away. From Rising Hope, people can walk to the South County Government Center where they have access to food stamps, general relief checks, and health and mental health services.
Laura Derby, of Rising Hope, says the project was designed to be more welcoming than many shelters. “It’s a very low-rules environment.” The only rules are a prohibition on weapons, drugs, and alcohol on site. The only requirement is respect. “As long as their behavior is appropriate, they’re not being disrespectful to each other, they can stay the night.”
This atmosphere has been the reason many people have continued to coming to the shelter, and altered their behavior along the way. “It’s hard for someone to come in off the streets and start following someone else’s rules… They got the hang of it.”
Both volunteers and clients learned to make the place “work” over the last 60 days. “In the beginning, if you never dealt with the environment of homelessness it is kind of hard. We had a few volunteers who admitted they couldn’t handle it… the drunkenness” or “how they look coming off the street.” Now “volunteers have been here and they can handle it” and “clients really appreciate the program.” At first they would be in and out and more disruptive. She credits Darden with ensuring everything ran smoothly. “Without James, if he weren’t staying, actually sleeping on his cot, they would have needed more volunteers. He did a lot.”
Often, it is not only shelter the clients need, but the human relationships that accompany a home. “They always want to talk – what happened that day or help they need. A lot of clients want to have a rapport with you.”
Several clients were able to hold down jobs, although they were still not ready for the responsibilities, or the financial burdens, of permanent housing. Out of the 22-24 clients that are regularly in the Hypothermia shelter, Dawson says “I know of 5 that actually have permanent jobs.” There are more who occasionally work for a day labor program.
Having a full time job and sleeping in the woods is not uncommon. “It happens.” She described one client that would go straight to bed and requests a 4 or 5 a.m.. wakeup so he could go to work. Dawson said men like him are capable of holding down a job, but aren’t ready for the structure of any organized living arrangements. “They are not ready to commit to an apartment or paying rent or saving money.”
Although this is the project’s final night, staff members like Dawson and Derby have had their thoughts turned towards what will come next for the clients since the beginning of the program. “We’ve been encouraging everybody tonight to try to get in a shelter if they have nowhere else to go. We are trying to discourage them from going into the woods. We just don’t want anyone to show up tomorrow.”
“It’s a prayer concern and a fear of ours – what’s going to happen after Friday night,”
Derby said. Later she added, “It’s a little tough tonight. It’s almost like telling family goodbye.”