Instead of Turned Backs, Sheltering Arms

Posted on 01.14.15 – Insider, People & Places

The mother of three young girls takes off their jackets and immediately the children rush to play with toys scattered in the basement of the Hahn building on the campus of Downtown’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, one of 20 houses of worship in Frederick County taking part in the Emergency Family Shelter program run by the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs. The children mix with older kids who commandeer the Wii and start a bowling tournament. The mom, still wearing her Walmart vest after working her shift, happily tells a volunteer that she may soon get her own apartment.

In the past, the Religious Coalition gave motel vouchers to families who were sleeping in cars or on the street, “but that could only be limited to a few days at a time,” says the Rev. Brian Scott, executive director. The coalition’s Alan P. Linton Shelter on DeGrange Street is only for adult individuals, not families. “We want the family unit to remain intact,” he says, adding that other local family shelters—run by the Community Action Agency and Advocates for the Homeless—are filled, creating a need for this latest program.

The coalition first visited existing programs, including ones in Harrisburg, Pa., Carlisle, Pa., and Richmond, Va., to find a model that would work here, says Scott. What resulted is a 90-day program for clients who not only receive shelter but also help in getting out of homelessness through enhancing job skills and education. Steps are also taken to improve parenting skills and making sure kids are learning. Churches have agreed to provide space one week every three months to set up cots and room dividers for the guests, which currently number four families with a total of 15 people. Volunteers have added evening meals since the program began and some church youth groups have joined in with crafts and games for the shelter children.

The Rev. Dr. Helen Smith, of Centennial Memorial United Methodist Church, also Downtown, was quoted in the coalition’s newsletter as saying: “We learned much about our ability to use the space the Lord provided us for the benefit of children and adults who lack adequate shelter. We watched as a toddler took his first steps while he was with us and a mentally challenged child who laughed and cuddled with those who came to serve as hosts. … We have been enriched by this opportunity.”

Scott says houses of worship that don’t have space for hosting have been generous with volunteers and other support and participants have come from the main line churches to a synagogue and storefront evangelical congregations. The Frederick Rescue Mission, he adds, has been kindly providing transportation to get guests to the shelters. “This winter we will need four-wheel drive owners to help out,” he says.

The program currently is renovating the former parsonage belonging to Asbury United Methodist Church on the corner of Bentz and All Saint’s streets to be used as a day center for the program. Here, clients can shower, do laundry and meet with case workers. Scott says this part of the year-round program is expected to cost $50,000, so community support is crucial.

With the traveling shelter concept, Scott says, “We are bringing the face of the homeless into neighborhoods throughout Frederick.” People are seeing that these are neighbors, families that have many of the same concerns they do, whether it’s being exhausted after their job—or anxious to find one—or stepping in when their kid whines to play just one more computer game before bed, even if that bed is a cot in the middle of a temporary shelter.