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No Shelter From the Cold

Volunteer shortfall forces winter shelter to delay opening, future weekends still in doubt.

On Friday, Dec. 1, the temperature hit a low of 44 degrees. On Saturday, it was 38 degrees. Sunday, 34. When the new month began, temperatures plunged from the spring-like heights they’d achieved in the last week of November. On the same day, Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church was scheduled to open its doors to homeless people who would need a warm place to sleep.

The weather arrived on Dec. 1., but the shelter missed its cue. On Friday morning, a sign on the door of the church at Russell Road informed people that the start of the Hypothermia Outreach Program would be delayed three days, until Monday Dec. 4. The cooperative effort by area churches united under the umbrella of Ventures in Community, hosted by Rising Hope and coordinated by New Hope Housing has attracted 16 churches to staff the shelter for the next four months. This is an ambitious expansion of last winter’s effort that housed about 20 people each night for two months in February and March.

But for the next two months, no volunteers have been found to staff the shelter on Saturdays and Sundays. Rather than open the shelter as scheduled on Friday, Dec. 1. The decision was made to push back the opening until Monday. “The churches have been responding wonderfully,” said the pastor of Rising Hope, Rev. Keary Kincannon, “but we’ve got those two openings.”

The shelter has opened, but if volunteers aren’t found by Saturday, it will have to close again.

“I would say we’re desperate,” said New Hope’s Executive Director Pam Michell. “Cold days like this make me really concerned.” She said the stakes are simple. “The program goal is make sure no one dies on the street in the winter.’

Michell said she expects 20 to 25 people to come each night for a hot meal and a place to sleep. New Hope Housing, which runs permanent homeless shelters, has been contracted to assist volunteers in running the program. Last year, the program averaged 19 people a night and sheltered 92 different people. More than 100 volunteers from 10 faith communities served there.

Organizers said that volunteers to work a weekend night in December and January do not need to be from a faith community, or even from an organized group at all. Individuals can band together to take a night at the shelter. But they must have a leader who receives training on the program and there must be at least five volunteers to serve food, three of whom who will spend the night.

“If we have to we’ll train on the spot and we’ll just do it,” Michell said. She added that volunteers will not have to come to the shelter on Christmas Eve.

Michell said that in 1985 she was working for Arlington County when she volunteered to coordinate her church’s effort in a similar program. “It changed my life.”

“You come in contact with people whom you would never come in contact with, and whom you have preconceived notions about that turn out not to be true.” After the experience, Michell began looking for jobs in the field. When she found one at Luther Place Memorial Church in D.C., she left her county job and has not looked back.

“I think the most important thing is just seeing people as people as opposed to, you know, ‘the homeless,’” she explained.

THE HYPOTHERMIA PROJECT has already averted one potential crisis. According to Kincannon, organizers were told by county health officials that serving food to the homeless from kitchens that were not certified by the health department violated county and state food codes. News outlets began reporting that people would no longer be able to cook food at home, or at many church kitchens. Kincannon said no church in the district has a certified kitchen.

But he said county officials had been working with Rising Hope and other churches to earn temporary certification. “On the one hand you don’t want the homeless getting sick,” Kincannon said. “I’m glad they’re saying that the homeless are as important as anybody else.”

“On the other hand, it really is sort of undercutting people’s ability to help save lives.”

County spokesman Merni Fitzgerald said the county workers were misinterpreted. She denied the county had ever suggested that people could not cook food in homes or churches and serve it to the homeless. “There has never been anything said officially that would discourage the donation of food,” she said.

Fitzgerald encouraged people to bake two-dozen cookies in their own kitchens for the homeless. “That is a good service and we count on the generosity of everyone in the community.”

State Del. Kristen Amundsen, who represents parts of Mount Vernon and at one time chaired the board of New Hope Housing, said she is glad the county is not enforcing the code as it is written. She said she is drafting legislation to change the state food code so that it expressly allows people to cook for the homeless, what she described as an “Oh, For Heaven’s Sake!” exemption. “Clearly if its on the books we need to fix it.”

She added that State Sen. Toddy Puller, also from Mount Vernon, will introduce the same bill in the other chamber.

“When people bring in homemade food to shelters, not only does that do something really important to residents, who have a chance to have all those wonderful things, but it does something for the people who prepared,” Amundsen said. “It gives them a direct connection to people. Both of those things are important.”