[Hpn] Concord NH First Congregational Church Offers Hope To Homeless

William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Mon, 14 Mar 2005 18:07:45 -0500


Church shelter aims to save and stabilize lives

First Congregational offers hope to homeless


By ERIC MOSKOWITZ
Monitor staff



March 14, 2005


If the Rev. David Keller didn't know what to expect when he opened an
emergency cold-weather homeless shelter at the First Congregational Church
last winter, he certainly didn't foresee what would happen this winter.

In just a year, the shelter has gone from saving lives, a few people and a
few nights at a time, to stabilizing them. That happened when the shelter
switched from opening at 10 p.m. and operating only on the coldest nights to
opening at 7:30 p.m., every night. With the question of survival solved,
many of the homeless have been able to focus on a next step, whether that
means finding work or getting medical care or seeking permanent housing,
Keller said.

Along the way, the number of people coming to the shelter has increased
nearly tenfold.
"I had no idea we'd be in it that deep," said Keller, still amazed at the
evolution. He only started the shelter last winter after a chance
conversation about the plight of the homeless in the cold. Now the project
has gotten so big that, some nights, the South Congregational Church has
assumed the spillover.

"They're still getting their feet wet, which is just the way it should be,"
he said. After all, he added, you don't leap into something like this.

He thought about that. "Well, I did," he said, sounding a bit sheepish. "I
stepped into this thing without having a clue what I was getting into. But
this is something that you do not enter into lightly. This is a volatile and
rewarding piece of work. You don't know what's going to happen next."

Next, most immediately, means winding down the shelter for the year. On
March 1, it reverted to cold-weather status, opening when the temperature
was expected to dip below 15 degrees. Next year, what form the shelter will
take is still anybody's guess.

Shelter statistics are kept in terms of bed-nights, the sum of all the beds
occupied in a season. Last winter, the shelter provided 84 bed-nights. This
winter, it has provided 700 and counting, said Martha Yager, project
coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, which technically
runs the shelter.

Yager works for the Quaker-founded service organization's economic justice
project, focusing on housing policy. Through that work, she had become quite
familiar with the agencies that provide direct services to the homeless and
had also gotten to know many homeless people themselves. "Come December, I
get really grouchy," she said. Keller happened to cross her path on a
particularly bitter day in December 2003, when Yager was preoccupied with
thoughts of the people she cared about who might freeze to death.
"I said, 'Let me see if our church could help,'" said Keller, pastor of
Concord's oldest church. After he received the go-ahead from the church's
board of trustees, the shelter opened in early January 2004. It operated 38
nights.

Before this winter, Keller and Yager decided to open earlier in the evening,
and the church board agreed. That led to a dramatic increase in attendance,
since many people last winter had already found a place on cold nights by 10
p.m., even if that place was a snow bank, Keller said.

The switch to nightly operation, on the other hand, was not premeditated.
During an extended cold spell earlier this year, the shelter stayed open for
several weeks in a row. The improvement in the lives of shelter guests
showed Keller and Yager the importance of staying open every night in
February.

At the same time, Keller, Yager and church secretary Sue Duckworth found
themselves increasingly enmeshed in an unexpected role, helping shelter
guests - those who want help; no one is pressured - navigate the
social-service provider network. That's been partly a daytime role.

The complexity of the system and the intricacies of filling out the needed
paperwork can make seeking help discouraging or unproductive for some
homeless people, Yager said. Often, guidance and a stable mailing address -
in this case, the church - are the difference makers. For example, she said,
people who lose their homes will lose Medicaid health benefits if their
re-certification forms bounce back to the government from their last-known
address. But many don't realize they can continue to receive benefits even
if they don't have a home, so long as they designate someone to receive
their mail, she said.

At night, Yager, Keller and Donna Muir, the church's recently named interim
community-outreach director, alternate being on hand to open the shelter,
welcome guests and make sure things start smoothly. Volunteers, working two
at a time, staff the shelter in shifts, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and 10 p.m.
to 8 a.m. About 60 volunteers rotate through the schedule, Yager said.

The shelter is less formal and less regimented than most, in both operations
and attitude. "We've tried not to create power differentials between our
volunteer supervisors and our guests," Yager said. "We've encouraged them to
think of it as a big pajama party and we're all sharing the space together.
And to an amazing degree, friendships have sprung up between people, guests
and volunteers."

The shelter operates out of the education wing of the North Main Street
church, with the classrooms converted to cot rooms at night. A room at the
end of the hall serves as a lounge, with a couch, television and snack
table; by day, it's the storage room for giant bagfuls of bed linens, which
volunteers take home to wash. The volunteers have also brought in
toothbrushes, towels, soap and other necessities, said Denise Parisi, who
has found regular shelter at the church this winter. The volunteers, who
often sleep on the floor, have fostered a family atmosphere, she said.

"The kindness of strangers is so overwhelming," Parisi said. After 20 years
of living in Concord, circumstances -"you fall on bad times, you know?"- led
to homelessness this winter for Parisi. The shelter has been "a godsend" and
"a house of rest - a house of warmth and peace."

Neither Keller nor Yager are sure what will happen next year. Yager
envisions the possibility of a broader faith-based shelter network in
Concord, to ease some of the burden off the First Congregational Church.
Keller said he will present his church board with as much information as
possible.

"You're looking at a very intense piece of work, and it's my belief that the
church needs to hear that whole story and consider it carefully as they move
toward a yes or no for next year," he said. But no matter what, he added,
the need for this type of shelter in Concord is obvious - to save lives and
stabilize them.


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