To members of Columbia’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation, volunteerism is nothing new. But hosting Grassroots’ Cold Weather Shelter (CWS) for a week may have had a more profound impact on the church’s members than almost anything else they do.
Between Thanksgiving and mid-March, the CWS provides an emergency place for homeless individuals and families to stay when Grassroots’ main shelter is full. The local faith community provides the space and volunteers to help with transportation, preparing and serving meals and doing laundry. Volunteers also staff the shelter, along with a team leader from Grassroots.
Sixteen weeks into this most recent season, the CWS had served 67 people, said Coordinator Anna Katz. Among the nightly guests were 49 adults and 18 children; 32 of the guests were individuals, nine were families with children and three were couples without children. The children ranged in age from 8 months to 16 years.
A Warm Welcome
Katz says some of the people had been served by the CWS in the past, “which shows there is still a chronic homeless population in Howard County which uses the CWS year after year. Although CWS is not an ideal place for families to be, it does allow them to work, save money and eventually get a place of their own.”
Two of the four- and five-person families that started the winter in the CWS have moved into their own apartments, Katz said. “And we expect that a number of our single individuals will do the same in the next couple of weeks.”
At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, more than 140 volunteers participated during the seven days the church hosted the CWS, said Minister Paige Getty.
Her congregation does “do a lot of justice and outreach work,” she said. “That tends to keep us once removed from the people we help, but that wasn’t the case with the Cold Weather Shelter. The thing that had the most impact was the personal connections. It put names and faces on an issue that we had cared about more abstractly.”
The personal connections with their guests prompted congregation members to rename it the Warm Welcome Shelter. And Getty says the church has now established a more active and ongoing relationship with Grassroots’ main shelter and its Day Resource Center in Jessup.
“People are coming together now to think strategically and creatively about how to end homelessness in Howard County,” she said.
Getty says “a number of people are also volunteering at the Day Resource Center, collecting donations for such specific needs as food at Grassroots, working on a network for referrals for services people need and looking at ways to be part of a referral network.”
The congregation is also talking about how to be involved in establishing more permanent housing for families and individuals who are homeless.
Although a few congregation members have always volunteered for Grassroots, these projects are “almost all new and came about since we hosted the Cold Weather Shelter,” Getty said.
Other congregations hosting the CWS this year included Atholton Seventh Day Adventist Church, Bethany United Methodist Church, Christ Memorial Presbyterian Church, Columbia Community Church, Cornerstone Community Church, Covenant Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church, Gary Memorial United Methodist Church, Glen Mar United Methodist Church, Grace Community Church, Kittamaqundi Community Church, Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church, Owen Brown Interfaith Center, St. John Baptist Church, St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church and St. Paul’s Catholic Church.
In addition to the CWS, Grassroots’ main shelter on Freetown Road has 33 beds for families and single adult women. A motel shelter for up to five families serves as a backup. There is also a shelter for up to 18 single men. Also, the Day Resource Center in Jessup provides meals, showers, limited laundry facilities, fellowship, health services and other social services to homeless individuals in the Route 1 Corridor three days a week.
Along with its shelter program, Grassroots operates a 24-hour crisis intervention hotline, offers walk-in counseling, runs suicide prevention programs and an ongoing support group for people who have lost loved ones to suicide. It also provides the mental health professionals for the county’s Mobile Crisis Team.
For more information about Grassroots, visit www.grassrootscrisis.org.