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Robin Huebner, Published December 22 2013

F-M overflow shelters provide a warm place on a cold night

FARGO - Every single night during cold winter months, while many of us are settling into our homes for the evening, a local church opens its doors to provide a warm place to sleep for those who need it.

The F-M Sheltering Churches Project serves as a safety net for homeless people who have to be turned away from over-full shelters.

Now in its third year, the project has become a well-coordinated machine.

“It is something to behold, the number of churches and volunteers involved,” said John Roberts, shelter operations director for Churches United for the Homeless.

He says without it, he’d fear the worst.

“There would be people staying in their cars, there would be people camping out, and there would be people suffering serious health issues,” Roberts said.

Off to a fast start

The project had a quick start this year, as an early cold snap had organizers rolling a week sooner than planned.

Eighteen churches are signed on in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo.

“ELCA Lutherans, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Evangelical Free, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ,” said the Rev. Sue Koesterman of Elim Lutheran Church in Fargo, rattling off all the denominations involved.

As part of a rotating schedule, each church typically signs on to be the designated shelter for a week.

Elim is taking two separate weeks this season.

It served as host church this past week, welcoming ‘guests’ to warm up, sleep, refresh and recharge.

The sheltering church is never publicized in advance, so that people don’t show up there directly.

For the safety of volunteers and an accurate needs assessment, guests must be screened before coming to the church.

“We’re very firm in this line, that you have to go through an established shelter first,” Koesterman said.

The majority of those served by the project come from Churches United in Moorhead and the New Life Center in Fargo.

How it works

Around dinner time every evening, conversations begin between the shelters about how far over capacity they are for the night.

Sometimes, the solution involves shuffling people.

“The goal is to fill any open shelter beds first, then send to sheltering churches,” Roberts said.

Churches typically house 16 to 20 guests a night, but they’re advised to prepare for 30, especially when the temperature plummets.

When it’s determined who goes to the sheltering church, those people get a transportation coupon and board a YMCA-operated bus, or drive their own vehicle if they have one.

Arriving around 8:30, guests are greeted and checked in by volunteers, then choose their bed for the night and put away their belongings.

They’re offered snacks, coffee or hot chocolate, and can work on puzzles, play games, read books or talk with volunteers if they so choose.

But most settle right into bed.

“They’re tired,” said Koesterman.

She said some will leave early in the morning to look for work.

Those who haven’t gone for day labor are taken back to Churches United or New Life Center around 7 a.m.

Volunteers in demand

It takes a small army of volunteers to get a site ready and staff it for a week of sheltering.

Each church tries to have male and female volunteers on hand overnight, but for safety’s sake, a male volunteer is a must as a majority of guests are men.

Rarely, however, is there trouble.

“It’s gone very well,” said Koesterman,”“We’ve had very few issues.”

Volunteers must attend a two-hour training session, in conjunction with the Red Cross, the homeless shelters and public health employees.

The first component deals with safety – where the emergency exits are located and where the fire extinguishers are stored.

The second deals with homeless culture and how to use active listening skills.

The third covers public health – for example, sanitizing beds at the end of the shift and what to do if someone becomes ill.

Koesterman said it’s a small investment of time, compared to what’s learned by talking with homeless people.

“Preconceived ideas are shattered, in a good way, when you have an opportunity to sit down and talk face to face,” Koesterman said.

More volunteers are always needed, and more training opportunities are coming up, with sessions held twice a month in January, February and March.

Shelter for a week

Creating a makeshift homeless shelter at a new church every week presents a unique challenge.

“There’s a lot of gear that travels from host site to host site,” Koesterman said.

That includes bins loaded with first-aid supplies and others with non-perishable food and water, in case of a snowstorm.

Around 30 donated air-mattresses and pumps travel from church to church.

Bins full of bedding are also brought in, with guests each receiving five hospital-grade flannel blankets.

Some will bunch a blanket up under their head.

Pillows aren’t used because they would be too difficult to sanitize.

Every morning, guests strip their beds of the blankets, which are hauled off to be commercially laundered and returned to the church.

Brenan’s Cleaners in Fargo has been washing, drying and folding blankets for Sheltering Churches since the project began.

According to commercial division manager Bruce Hagen, the business donated its services for the first two years.

This season, it charges what project organizers call a very favorable rate.

Hagen says he frequently sees homeless people near the cleaners on Fourth Avenue North, carrying everything they probably own.

“The homeless need a place to sleep, and they need something to cover up with,” said Hagen.

“I’m glad we’re doing it,” he said.

Being a designated shelter brings a certain chaos to each church, causing confirmation programs to be adjusted and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to be moved, for instance.

It also requires a certain amount of choreographed coordination between churches, especially on Sundays, when the shelter ‘torch’ is passed from one to another.

But it’s all part of the benefit.

“That’s one of the things I find most hopeful,” said Koesterman, “the partnership and working relationship between people.”

A growing need

Each year, the Sheltering Church Project has lasted longer, and the number of people needing help has grown.

While the project has received some grant money, it mostly gets by on donations.

Its budget for this season is $30,000, with nearly half of it going toward the daily laundering of blankets.

“We went through 16,000 pounds of laundry last year,” Koesterman said.

The other significant cost is transporting people to and from the sheltering churches. That accounts for about $11,000 of the budget.

Koesterman said the goal is to offer shelter at the church sites for only a few more seasons.

Ideally, long-term, affordable permanent housing solutions can be found – a task numerous city leaders will take on in the coming year.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Robin Huebner at (701) 451-5607.