Homeless shelter program has people, space shortage
Safe Nights has only enough room to serve 30
Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009
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Help shelter homeless people The Safe Nights program that is administered by LifeStyles of Maryland in La Plata is under way and the nonprofit organization needs the public's help to keep it alive. The program provides shelter for the county's homeless population in local churches from Nov. 1-March 31 each year. Homeless people are served a hot dinner and breakfast. The nonprofit organization is in need of many things to keep the program rolling, including monetary donations, volunteers, pillows, bagged lunches, gift certificates from local fast-food restaurants, gas cards and warm winter clothing such as gloves, heavy socks, hats and hand warmers. Call Sandy Washington, executive director, at 301-609-9900 or send a monetary donation to LifeStyles of Maryland, 612 E. Charles St., La Plata MD 20646.
Hundreds of homeless people in Charles County struggle each night to try to find a warm place to sleep, especially when the temperatures dip well below freezing.
The challenge to provide them with shelter is becoming harder and harder for a local nonprofit organization that has been operating a program to meet that need for several years.
LifeStyles of Maryland's Safe Nights program was established in 2004 to provide shelter to the homeless population from Nov. 1 to March 31. Eighteen churches in Charles County provide shelter for a week for homeless people throughout the coldest months of the year, said Sandy Washington, executive director, adding that the churches also prepare hot dinners and breakfasts for their guests before setting them back out to face the cold. Washington said there are hundreds of homeless people in Charles County, and the number is rising with the poor economy.
Homeless people, including entire families, must arrive at the church and check in by 7 p.m. and they must leave the shelter by 7 the following morning, Washington said. The bitter temperatures, often accompanied by high wind and the threat of chilly precipitation, are forcing more homeless people to show up to participate in the program. The problem is only 30 people a night can be housed at a church, she said.
Right now, Safe Nights cannot offer shelter at more than one church at a time because of a lack of volunteers, Washington said, adding that volunteer drivers pick up homeless people in Waldorf and La Plata who need a ride to whichever church is providing shelter for the night.
The tough economic times and bitter temperatures are creating a huge problem in trying to fulfill a big need, she said.
"Last year, we often had 50 people show up for shelter," she said. "We couldn't fit them all in so we had to turn people away."
That problem is occurring frequently this year because more people are homeless due to the economy, Washington said.
"By 10 p.m. we're at capacity," she said. "We have to turn people away."
The other dilemma is the temperatures during the day are also frigid and many homeless people who do not have a job have nowhere to go to keep warm, Washington said.
"We let people out at 7 a.m.," she said. "People can go to county agencies and other public places to keep warm, but they don't open until at least 8 a.m. They have nowhere to go for at least an hour."
LifeStyles needs many things to keep the Safe Nights program rolling, including volunteers, monetary donations, pillows, bagged lunches to give people when they leave the church shelter, gift certificates for local fast-food restaurants, gloves, hand warmers and warm socks, Washington said.
A family of seven who should be housed through the program cannot stay at a church shelter because the father gets off work too late, Washington said.
"The family lives in a car," she said. "The husband works and he can't get off in time to get into Safe Nights."
Peace Lutheran Church and Good Samaritan Presbyterian Church in Waldorf were the first two churches to participate in the program. The pastors of both churches said the need to house homeless people, particularly at night during the winter months, is great.
"There's an awful lot of need out there," said the Rev. Donald Benjamin of Good Samaritan. "With the extremely cold weather that we've been experiencing the need is certainly worse. It's so cold that people can't even stay in cars. We need a drop-in center for people to go at night that is at least warm."
"It's not just the cold weather," said the Rev. Craig Endicott of Peace Lutheran Church. "People are losing their jobs. Our food pantry has really gotten slammed."
Endicott said that in the past the pantry would serve 14 to 16 families a year, but the economic downturn has increased that number to between 40 and 50 families.
"There are an awful lot of people in Charles County who are just one paycheck away from being in Safe Nights," he said.
Charles Warren serves as the chairman of Peace Lutheran's social concerns committee. The need is definitely rising in the county to find at least night shelter for the homeless population, he said.
"Safe Nights is a really good program," he said. "It's something that's been needed for a long time. The number of folks in Charles County who are homeless is increasing and there just aren't enough places for them to go to shelter for the night."
Safe Nights preserves the homeless population's dignity while lending them a helping hand — an act that is greatly appreciated, Warren said.
"We treat people like human beings, not strangers," he said. "People who stay at the shelters really appreciate what we're doing."
Washington said that volunteering at a Safe Nights church would help people understand how great the need is to shelter the homeless population.
"People need to realize that, while we're all struggling, these folks are having so many other problems that they're trying to deal with," she said. "Just raising the public's awareness of the problem is so important. If people come and spend an hour with the program one night they would really see the face of homelessness in our community."