Mid-Coast warming shelter was filled with hope
On Jan. 23, as a member of the Victoria Area Homeless Coalition and an employee of Mid-Coast Family Services, I participated in the 2014 Homeless Count.
The day started early and consisted of interviewing people to learn about their housing status. In addition to going out into the community to conduct surveys, we held the second annual Day of Care, in which guests could come to us and get a haircut, take a shower, receive a health screening and meet with service providers while we got required information. Then that night, a hot meal was served at Christ's Kitchen to reach out to another segment of our population. The day was remarkable - both in the dedication of each volunteer who worked to the way we were received by our homeless community.
However, the day didn't end the way we had planned. An arctic cold front blew in, and it got cold, really cold. While serving the evening meal, it became apparent that we had a hard choice to make; could we really feed homeless people, interview them to meet government requirements and then send them back into the night to sleep unprotected from the elements?
On behalf of Mid-Coast Family Services, I made the decision that we would place some of the most vulnerable into hotel rooms until the weather warmed. Ten very grateful individuals and families spent two nights at the Cameron Inn. Over the next two weeks, the weather pattern repeated itself, and we continued to use hotel rooms for emergency shelter. And as a result, the Mid-Coast Family Services budget was stretched thin.
So with the Victoria Area Homeless Coalition, we decided to launch a temporary warming shelter. All we really needed was a place, bedding and volunteers. Within a matter of hours, all three materialized. Trinity Episcopal Church allowed us to use the Pine Street Community Center, First United Methodist Church in Port Lavaca loaned us some cots, and members of the Homeless Coalition signed up to work to ensure that the shelter would be fully staffed at all times by experienced personnel. Food was donated by church groups and individuals. Clothing and blankets poured in.
In three short days, the weather turned cold again, and we reopened the warming shelter, this time at the Central Church of Christ. Again, food came in as did the volunteers and monetary support. Two weeks later, the kind folks at Rushing Wind Fellowship opened their doors as a warming shelter and provided all the volunteers as well as food. For the 10 combined nights, the warming shelter was not just a safe place to sleep, but it was also a place of laughter, conversation and emerging friendships.
It was an amazing experience in which I learned more than I ever had in a classroom. During long conversations, I learned that there are so many reasons for homelessness. I met young men who could be labeled part of the boomerang generation - young adults who move back and forth into their parents' home before becoming independent. However, if poverty, overcrowding or dysfunction is present in a family, returning home is not an option. I met a grandmother, a preacher, a student and a veteran. I visited with several longtime homeless friends who struggle with poverty, substance abuse and mental illness. While some stories were heartbreaking, others were inspiring. One young man walks 1.5 hours to work every day. He left our shelter at 5 a.m. in sub-freezing temperatures so he could make it to work on time. Each story was unique and compelling.
I was also relearned that Victorians are kind and generous. Because of you, two homeless families and three individuals moved into permanent housing. One young man was reunited with friends and family thanks to the coverage by the Victoria Advocate, while another man returned to his hometown and family. We bought new shoes, socks and underwear for our guests. As a result, we saw hope grow. Hope because people care. Hope because dignity for every life is real. Hope in second chances. The relationships that began at the warming shelters will not end with the season but will continue to grow to benefit all of us. To our host churches, donors and volunteers, thank you. You helped us provide a service that we couldn't do alone. To our homeless friends, thank you for trusting us and sharing your stories and lives with us. You compel us to look for permanent solutions to homelessness.
Ginny Stafford is the chief executive officer of Mid-Coast Family Services. Readers can contact her by mail at 120 S. Main Suite 310, Victoria, TX 77901, or by calling 361-575-7842.