An Impromptu Shelter

Date Posted: 
Thursday, October 2, 2014

The winter of 2014 is gone but not forgotten. It was bad enough for those of us with a roof over our head, a furnace, and maybe an electric blanket or two. For those who were homeless, it was brutally cold, life threatening.

One night last winter, the predicted temperature was 13 degrees below zero. Three people who lived on the streets in College Point, New York, a neighborhood in Queens, had a major dilemma.

They owned a large dog and weren’t allowed into shelters. The one place they could have stayed was snowed in. The two homeless men and one woman had formed a family unit, and were part of the neighborhood around First Reformed Church. They had helped out around the church on various occasions and were known to some of the elders. A couple of the elders proposed inviting the three into the education building of the church to shelter overnight.

The trio stayed in one of the rooms and used mats from a church program as beds. The heat was not turned up. The folks were used to the cold and only complained when it got too hot—a balmy 45 degrees! They brought their own supplies, and they cleaned up carefully before they left. As it turned out, the temperature didn’t rise above freezing for weeks, and the three people sheltered there for many nights.

In varying degrees, some members of the congregation were unhappy about the elders’ decision to offer the three people a warming center. They were concerned about damage to the building and liability. “But the situation was dire and the building was empty,” says pastor Linda Burlew Gold. “It made no sense to deny the people shelter.” She wrote in the church newsletter:

Was our small attempt at helping the least of these perfect? No, mistakes were made on all sides and we spent much of the time having to figure out on the fly the best way to work together. But whatever mistakes might have been made in execution, the decision to open our doors was not a mistake. We are not in a position to help a large number of people. We do not have the connections to lobby for the kind of large systemic change that would make small gestures unnecessary. But for a month this winter, we helped three of God’s children keep from freezing to death in our small community in our corner of God’s kingdom.

Does First Reformed Church have plans to offer homeless people winter shelter again? Perhaps, but there will be more structure and supervision, says Gold. The church has made an attempt to interest other churches in a cooperative effort to officially provide a shelter for homeless people. While many would like to help, for one reason or another it wasn’t possible to get it up and running on short notice. However, a local Catholic church is making plans to open a shelter.

Meanwhile, a non-profit agency is working with the three homeless folks to find them permanent housing. The woman, who initially was reluctant to come into the building, said that although she has lived outside for many years, she doesn’t think she would have survived the winter of 2014 without the shelter the church provided.

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