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The Cold Weather Shelter is Nothing to Be Proud Of

As of yesterday, it is illegal to house homeless families on cots on the floor in a room with lots of other people in the District of Columbia.  Housing a family in these conditions, according to child advocates, is "callous" and traumatizing to children.

So how should I feel about the fact that our congregation did exactly that for the past week when we hosted Howard County's Cold Weather Shelter?

There's been a great deal of coverage in the Washington Post over the past month about homeless families in Washington, D.C.  There has been an astonishing 135% increase in the number of homeless families seeking emergency shelter in the District this winter.  Why?  News stories have suggested a number of factors including an unusually cold winter and a law that requires the District to provide shelter to anyone in need of it during "hypothermia alerts" when the temperature falls below freezing.  Despite Mayor Grey's best efforts, that law still allows families to stay sheltered until they can locate permanent housing.  Add to these factors the loss of thousands of affordable housing units over the past several years due to gentrification and the result is a real crisis.

Where to put everyone?  The DC General family shelter was filled at the beginning of the season with over 300 families and over 470 families are staying in hotel rooms, some in Maryland.  In January, the District began housing families in recreation centers.  Now, 79 families living in the rec centers have joined a class-action lawsuit against the district, charging that these facilities are traumatizing to children.

On Monday, D.C. Superior Court judge Robert Okun issued a temporary injunction ordering the District to immediately stop housing families in the rec centers as their class-action suit progresses.  The Post story reporting on the decision quoted a number of complaints from homeless families:  "The lawsuit alleged that children, parents and sometimes grandparents had been unable to shower for days and got only cots in big, noisy rooms that were illuminated all night."  

We try to do better than that a KC, but the truth of the matter is we aren't that far off from what this complaint described.  We only have one shower for all the guests and you have to walk through the men's sleeping area to get to it.  Everyone sleeps on a foam mattress on the floor, and the size of our building means that all the men sleep in a common room and all the women and children sleep together in another area.  

"How's it going in the men's area?" I asked a guest after the first night.  "A whole lotta snoring," he responded, laughing.  I can just imagine.

We hosted the second-to-last week of the Cold Weather Shelter and by then the population is down from the coldest months.  Most of the residents were single men, and there were a handful of single women.  There was also a family with three kids.  The night I stayed overnight at the shelter, I watched as one of the little girls got up in the middle of the night and wandered over to the bathroom, alone.  She looked sleepy, not scared.  But if she did feel scared, who could blame her?  She sleeps in a different church each week in a room with a group of strangers.

The Cold Weather Shelter is a big effort for every church that hosts it.  Not only does the congregation need to staff the shelter from 6:00 pm until 7:00 am, it provides rides for the guests, three meals each day and does the laundry for all of the guests.  Many congregations including ours offer little extra activities in the evening like live music or bingo or baking nights. Lots and lots of volunteer time goes into this shelter every year.  For a congregation the size of KC, it is pretty much "all hands on deck".  

I am so proud of our congregation for the work we did with the Cold Weather Shelter last week.  All jobs were filled, all the meals were amazing and lots and lots of love went into everything we did.  

But I can't feel proud of the fact that Howard County has a Cold Weather Shelter.  It is definitely a better alternative than sleeping outside in the winter, but it isn't much better.  It is especially tough for kids.  In fact, it really is unacceptably bad for children.

Washington, D.C. is overwhelmed with the increase in homeless families there.  Howard County is not.  In fact, on January 22nd of this year, when the County did its point-in-time survey of homeless residents, it found only 25 households with children under 18 who were homeless in this county (although there are reasons to believe that number is actually somewhat higher).  This is a solvable problem for a county like ours.  

Other areas of the country have begun to solve homelessness--not just manage it.  For example, there are no longer any homeless veterans in Phoenix.  It seems entirely possible to me that Howard County could resolve to no longer have any homeless families.  At the very least, we need to stop housing families in the Cold Weather Shelter.  Then, we should stop housing anyone in this way.

Before the next season of the Cold Weather Shelter begins, I resolve to convene a conversation among all the congregations that hosted the shelter this year about how we can stop congratulating ourselves for our generosity and start working towards making this kind of inadequate housing unnecessary.


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Randy Malm

In Defense of the Cold Weather Shelter

When folks from KC were in Haiti working on houses with Habitat for Humanity, we slept next to each other like cord wood in sleeping bags on the floor of a deserted 2-room former medical facility. There were 11 of us – 6 in one room and 5 in the other. There was not room for more. There was a frog nearby which kept me awake some of the time (a lot like someone snoring). And there were spiders and insects galore.

There were no children in our group, and we all knew each other, so it was a little more like an adventure than a forced mass housing. But we were trapped there with no electricity, no plumbing, no potable water, no refrigeration and no stores. There was the once-a-week open market where we could buy small things like soap. We were fed 3 meals a day. I was never sure what it was, but one day I believe we ate goat. And one day we went to the river to bathe. Rather than being cold, it was hot.

We were immersed in a culture we did not know surrounded by people who did not speak our language. We were welcome as we were lending a helping hand. We were ‘watched’ by many, and I confess, I watched back.

We were only there for a week. At the end of the week we got to go home, rather than being sent to another shelter.

We chose this experience in the interest of providing housing to people we did not know. And that’s what we do with the Cold Weather Shelter.

We chose to house people for a week at KC this winter, and have done so each winter for over a decade. I see no reason to not be proud of what we did.

There may be ways to improve the conditions we provide. Perhaps we could provide tents within the sleeping areas to offer some level of privacy. While there is only one shower, it is available every day – it’s not a trip to the river. We do their laundry. The food is outstanding, and the people can and do interact – we speak the same language. There is TV and even an internet connection. The place is clean and warm.

One major difference is that when we left Haiti, a family had a home.

So, rather than lose pride in our Cold Weather Shelter, let’s work together to Help End Homelessness. The need is great and solvable. So let’s fix it.

John Chadwick

The eradication of poverty is a noble yet daunting cause. I enjoyed singing with a group of Church members performing for the Cold Weather Shelter. And I enjoyed chatting with several of our homeless guests, who were sincerely appreciative of their accommodations. I am honored to be a part of a Church community which is actually making a difference. My Mother is very impressed by the stories I have shared about the efforts KC is involved in. I have tried unsuccessfully to bring her with me to KC, she often tells the story of her falling out with the Church before my time, and I never press. Dignity is required for our self motivated best interest. Shelter, food and clothing is a blessing in and of itself, but bringing those who share to care enough to love their guests as brothers suggests we must follow up, keep in touch, and nurture an environment where everyone has a fighting chance to find their own way out of the storm.

Lorrie Hart

I have to question whether the individuals who are addicted might be better served in a facility where they would be required to get help for their addiction. (Yes, there was at least one addict, who steals regularly from his employer to feed his addiction). Access To Recovery pays for 45 days for those without funds in a halfway house or treatment center.

Rick Miller

While I seldom respond to blogs or comment, I feel called to do so. While I wish there was no need for the Cold Weather Shelter and that we really addressed poverty and homelessness by providing equal educational opportunity, a living wage, treatment for mental health, drug or alcohol issues I'm also a realist. I strongly believe that the Cold Weather Shelter is better than no shelter at all. Having slept outside with just a blanket I can assure you the shelter KC provided was a lot better than being outside. Further it is probably much better than most of the shelters provided by municipal governments. I believe we must work to eradicate homelessness and reduce poverty, but until that day comes the CWS provides a safe, warm and nurturing environment for those who seek shelter. I am proud of and feel blessed to be a part of a community that wants to be part of the solution by both taking action in serving those who need help and working to eradicate the conditions that lead to the need for the Cold Weather Shelter.

Ray Hallman

Current methods and ideas applied to "charity aid" is frustrating to me. These charity efforts are over applied to "band-aid" projects instead of root causes of the "poor" conditions of our needy citizens. Some of our charity efforts must be applied to solving the root causes of the need for charity such as "Cold Weather Shelters" (CWS) and the like. We must not just be satisfied for throwing money at overseas charity local efforts toward operating these shelters and the like. We must work at preventing citizens from falling into the need trap to be helped in CWS. For example, running a CWS is a band-aid effort. Creating jobs for the needy citizens is not a band-aid effort because it will solve the "lack of work" issue that causes their need for CWS charity.

How do we solve the "lack of jobs" root issue? First we start be adjusting the tax laws to reward the rich and wealthy who make investments into projects that result in more job creation. Factories and the production of goods and housing will go along way toward the reduction of unemployed citizens needing charity. So we create laws that apply lower tax rates on investments that increase and improve domestic manufacturing for example. At the same time we can adjust the tax laws to require higher tax rates for those investments in stocks and overseas holdings that do nothing to solve our local need for charity.

Let's redirect our charitable efforts to include work toward fixing the root cause and put our citizens back to work. Any of you possessing political and/or legal abilities but are serving on CWS committees are misapplying your efforts and should rethink your charity efforts.

Let's put people back to work through local job creation efforts along with CWS charity efforts or you'll never solve anything. :)

BTW, An important temporary measure is to require those needy citizens entering a CWS to sign a "Writ of Release" statement to protect CWS operators from lawsuits when all the CWS operators are doing is providing an improved condition to the needy. While not perfect CWS operations are better than no CWS at all. Stop the ungrateful consumers of charity from suing the CWS operators because they don't get enough free stuff. :(

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