Friday, September 22, 2023

Local Emergency Shelter Program Prepares for Another Winter in the Pandemic

Through volunteers, staff and community partners, Community of Faith Mission provides emergency shelter to homeless people of the Greater Williamsburg area during winter months. (Courtesy of Community of Faith Mission)

WILLIAMSBURG — During the coldest months of the year, Community of Faith Mission offers a safe space to eat and sleep for people in need of emergency shelter.

Now on its tenth anniversary, Community of Faith Mission continues to offer emergency shelter to homeless people of the Greater Williamsburg area on a weekly basis starting from November through March.

The faith-based, low-barrier emergency shelter program provides three meals a day and a place to sleep to up to 25 people a night for an 18-week period. The shelter rotates weekly between different local host churches.

Through other community resources, the program also works as a bridge to help the guests find more permanent housing.

“What I call our program is a landing pad or a launching pad,” Donnie Hines, executive director of Community of Faith Mission, said. “Sometimes people just need to land and start over, and others need to figure out how to get going.”

Community of Faith Mission was in its last month of shelter when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.

While communicable diseases has always been a concern for the program, which sees 25 people congregating in one room each night, the staff was able to take time to plan safety procedures for the pandemic.

Safety practices included medical screening tents, air filtering stations and mask enforcements indoors.

While the shelter has seen an increase in guests each year since the start of the program, 2020 was somewhat of an anomaly.

“Because there was so much government money out there we actually had a decrease in our guests,” Hines said. “And this year, because a lot of that money is gone, we are expecting to have an increase. We’re gearing toward having full capacity.”

This year’s winter shelter, which opened Sunday, Nov. 14, will be open every day between 6:30 p.m. and 7 a.m.

“At 7 a.m., they do need to exit the shelter, and then they can come back that night,” Hines said.

The program has a partnership with community agencies that come into the shelter once a week to chat with the guests about housing opportunities.

“If someone is coming to us for a whole season, we do try to encourage them to make use of some of the other services so that this is not their only option,” Frances Geissler, vice president of Community of Faith Mission, said.

Each year, the program provides a sanctuary for homeless individuals, through community partnerships such as the Merrimac Center, a local juvenile detention center that helps Community of Faith Mission with laundry, or Riverside Paper, which supplies the program with items such as paper plates.

The program also holds relationships with local police departments, as well as city and county officials.

Despite their increase in guests most years, Hines said that the decrease in volunteers has been “troubling.”

“Even before Covid, we noticed having a tough time getting volunteers,” Hines said. “I know that people have very busy lives, but if people could find it in their hearts just to give two or three hours, even just once a year, just give half-a-day or half-a-night once a year, it would make all the difference in the world to us.

The program has around 150 volunteer slots a week, with several thousand volunteers throughout the season from various church congregations or other community members.

Geissler noted that volunteers are never alone, as there is always a staff member on duty as well during the night.

“We get more out of it than we put into it,” she said. “And when we can sit down and share a meal with people, we find that we have military service in common with someone, or a similar kind of job. We’re just people, and it’s a time of fellowship.  I can’t say enough about what a blessing volunteering is.”

This season, Community of Faith Mission is preparing for several upcoming campaigns, including the $359 Winter Shelter Annual Campaign, which the community can donate to help the program run the shelters.

Community of Faith Mission will also hold a fundraising Soup Sale event, that will feature soups donated from local restaurants.

On Dec. 21, the longest night of the year, the program will hold a memorial service at the Williamsburg Christian Church for homeless people who passed away during the past year.

“It’s very moving,” Geissler said.

Those interested in volunteering for Community of Faith Mission can email or call (757) 634-6787.

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