The first answer to the question is that they are sleeping in churches. My own church is serving as a shelter. Why don’t other churches do the same thing we are? In a sense they are. To serve as a shelter, a church must meet certain requirements.
- The church must be accessible. Many churches are in the countryside or in suburbs that are not served by busses. Homeless people cannot get to them.
- Insurance companies demand a different policy and higher premiums if your church is used for overnight occupation. Somebody has to pay for that.
- The building must meet certain safety codes. Some buildings that are one hundred to two hundred years, or even fifty years old are not up to code. Now assuming the health department approves the building and the congregation gets the proper insurance, what happens next?
- Churches are still subject to government oversight. For the safety of the guests. The shelter must be staffed during operating hours. The staff is usually volunteers. Many of the volunteers will typically come from those churches that don’t meet the codes or location requirements.
- The staff must be trained in what is needed at that specific facility.
- The staff must be trained in handling conflict and high-tension situations.
- The staff must be trained in the laws of interacting with a variety of people. They must accept service animals into the building. They cannot ask what someone’s disability is. They cannot touch a guest’s belongings unless they are asked to assist. The list of restrictions and instructions for the volunteers takes up pages in the official manual published by the county for shelter operations. Yes, there is a book of instructions and regulations for opening a shelter.
- Now, assuming the shelter has met building requirements and trained the staff, they now need some supplies - cots, blankets, mattresses, disinfectant, warm clothing, rubber gloves, disposable pillows, and adult and child diapers. The list is longer but someone has to pay for all these items, usually members of the congregations supporting the shelter.
- Finally, the shelter has done all their paperwork. They have their supplies. The trained volunteers arrive. The doors are opened. Nobody arrives. The homeless community needs time to learn to trust a new facility. Even in nasty weather people are slow to trust a new shelter, but they eventually come two or three at a time then more.
In researching church based shelters, I learned that most communities have them. The church shelters are for overnight stays. They don’t normally have full services such as social workers, job training or meals. Some counties allow meals to be delivered but not cooked on site. Other counties allow meals to be prepared on site if the kitchen is certified as most newer church kitchens are.
Pets are often allowed as space permits and if the facility has crates to confine the pets.
It takes a huge effort and a fair amount of money for a church to serve as a shelter. Many people are involved in the effort. Some donate materials or money. Some volunteer to take the training and staff the building. Don’t forget clean-up and wear and tear on the building.
So this is what your community churches are doing. I have several concerns about the justice of church shelters. I am thankful that congregations do work together to serve our homeless population. I’ve talked about the many people who work behind the scenes to make the shelter happen. I’m talking about maybe a hundred people counting all those who donate a few dollars, this is a hundred people giving time, money and materials to shelter our homeless population out of a community of maybe twenty thousand people. Churches tend to be made up of older people, little old ladies, a few middle-aged families. Expecting these relatively few people to solve our homeless problems is a social injustice and insulting. We can do better.
Homelessness is a situation that everybody needs to work toward solving. It is going to take masses of free housing, low cost housing, support services and compassion to solve this problem. We need to rethink community rather than pointing fingers at a small segment of the community and criticizing their efforts.
A few people are doing the best they can. It isn’t enough. We should not have homeless people.