Wednesday, August 10, 2022

‘Life just happened:’ Winter shelter provides relief from cold weather, hardship

Darkness had already fallen when shelter guests started arriving Wednesday night at CrossWalk Church on John Tyler Highway.

About half a dozen people lined up outside two glass doors leading into the lower part of the church, some carrying fabric or plastic bags, others chatting amongst themselves.

Inside, more than a dozen volunteers joined together, standing in a circle, and prayed.

“… For we know that you love these people because they are created in your image,” said Joseph Dozier, site director of Southeastern University at CrossWalk. “And I pray that if we can just encourage them with one single sentence or one single word, I pray that you [God] would use it to your abilities to transform them and get them back on their feet to the purpose you have called them to.”

The group simultaneously said “Amen” and set out to arrange beds and a hot meal for their evening guests.

The church Wednesday night was busy in a habitual way: Community of Faith Mission operates a nightly winter shelter seven days a week for eighteen weeks during the winter.

COFM’s shelter is the only emergency shelter for homeless men, women and families in the Williamsburg area, nonprofit founder Renee Collins said.

“In Williamsburg, hopefully [the mentality toward those who are homeless] is changing,” said Donnie, a 58-year-old woman who manages the nightly shelter through the winter season. “Hopefully people are more aware the need is there.

Donnie asked WYDaily to only use her first name for privacy reasons related to her work at the shelter.

This is the sixth year COFM, a faith-based nonprofit, is operating the shelter in Williamsburg, partnering with churches and other community organizations to provide those living in homelessness with three meals, a bed and company through the coldest nights of the year.

This season, the shelter is open from Nov. 12 to March 18, moving to a new church every week. Eighteen churches are hosting the shelter this year.

At the COFM shelter, guests are not called “homeless people,” they are “people living through homelessness” or “our friends in need.” Besides physical support in the form of meals or a warm place to sleep, COFM and area churches also aim to provide emotional support.

Donnie has been volunteering with COFM for four years. She added that homelessness does not discriminate, and even “great inventors” have died penniless.

The 2017 Point in Time Count estimates 24 people were experiencing homelessness in Williamsburg, 83 in James City County and eight in York County in January 2017. 

The Point in Time Count is only intended to be a snapshot of the homeless population, but local leaders have said homelessness in the Williamsburg area affects far more than the recorded numbers.

On Monday and Tuesday, the shelter at CrossWalk was nearly at full capacity, taking in 23 guests. The shelter can take in 25 guests each night.

On Wednesday, volunteers cooked steak burgers on an enormous grill outside while others prepared vegetables and dinner rolls in the church. Once inside, guests were welcome to hang out and chat or simply take time to themselves, Dozier said.

“It’s rewarding to just hang out with people and hear their stories about where they come from, and encouraging them,” Dozier said. “You hear how people have goals not to be stuck in homelessness forever.”

The winter shelter receives help from more than just the faith community. Local college students, City of Williamsburg departments and even the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail pool their resources to help.

This week, William & Mary student organization Greater City signed up to fill volunteer shifts at CrossWalk. Greater City has been volunteering at the shelter

No Greater City members were able to volunteer overnight Wednesday due to early classes and studying for tests on Thursday, but had volunteered throughout the week, organization Director of Community Engagement Megan Man said.

“It’s really beautiful to see a genuine friendship come out of shelters like this,” Man said. “We’re told not to expect guests to reciprocate our friendship, and that’s okay, but it always catches me off guard in a good way when they also ask me how I’m doing.”

Donnie said COFM also has help from the city connecting guests with resources to improve their living situations.

Dozier added the jail washed the week’s laundry to prepare it for the shelter at the next church.

Donnie said guests sometimes come into the shelter “bewildered” and tense from their living circumstances. But after getting a meal, some rest and relaxation, their physical relief is almost palpable.

“It’s like running a race,” Donnie said. “You cross the finish line and cool down and then you just feel so much better.”

If Dozier and other volunteers have learned anything from working at the shelter, it’s that people are people.

“You can’t forget that,” he said. “It’s something unfortunate that happens. People didn’t plan on it, but life just happened.”

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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