Between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., the Williamsburg House of Mercy is safe harbor, a little island where people experiencing homelessness can rest, shower, use the blocky landline telephone on a foldout table set to the side, and receive a vast array of professional services.
Shannon Woloszynowski, executive director at Williamsburg House of Mercy, said the day shelter and soup kitchen has existed in the area in some shape or form for about half a century, and their growing list of community programs — baby care, budget counseling, health care, reentry support for those just out of prison and more — serve to help homeless folks get back on their feet, to keep them from slipping through the cracks.
“It’s a lot of relationship building, a lot of working with them along the way,” Woloszynowski said as she stepped out of the way, holding the door for a man who was wheeling a big blue suitcase outside and sporting a grin.
The man, who Woloszynowski said had been homeless in Williamsburg for a while, had been given a bus ticket back home to Pennsylvania after deciding to move back in with his parents.
“I think some of the misperception is that we’re looking to ship the homeless out of Williamsburg, that is not at all the case,” Woloszynowski said.
The shelter’s goal is housing,Woloszynowski said, though they’ll help folks in need, whatever shape that takes. From fixing the transmission on one man’s car, to job interview counseling.
With the transportation center just around the corner, Woloszynowski said people land in Williamsburg every day for jobs or relationships, or just after seeing a Williamsburg commercial on TV.
“They come here and find that it’s not the land of milk and honey like they thought it was,” she said. “They get stuck here, they struggle.”
Over the past year, the shelter has seen about 300 different individuals, Woloszynowski said, but because of caseworkers and the string of programs aiming to better their situation, the shelter is usually helping about 50 or so people at a time.
In the main threshold of the Williamsburg House of Mercy, between noon and 1 p.m., the shelter becomes a soup kitchen, serving hot meals to anybody who needs one. Volunteers in aprons bustle around under a vast, pointed, cathedral ceiling and people sit down to eat at long rows of tables.
Today, the place is pristine, clean, organized, and well lit, but earlier this year when the shelter received a makeover, the space was gutted and filled with construction.
“We just did a lot of creative organizing with partitions and folding tables and things like that. We just made it work for ourselves,” Woloszynowski said.
The staff and volunteers worked out of the basement of nearby National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Woloszynowski said, continuing their services by appointment, but with no kitchen deep underground, they ran into a roadblock when it came to serving meals.
Woloszynowski said Jovan Kerns, the shelter’s resident cook, couldn’t imagine discontinuing the meals for those who needed them, so he cleared a space from the kitchen to the back door, and every weekday he would spend hours in the hot kitchen.
“He would fix meals here and run them across the parking lot and we’d just shuttle them over like that,” Woloszynowski said.
Finished in March, the renovations resulted in new appliances such as a washer and dryer, two industrial refrigerators and a freezer, a shower, as well as offices and a new day shelter room to give privacy to the people who spend their time there.
The upgrades, costing approximately $300,000 and paid for in part by around 100 individual donations, have alleviated some of the challenges, but the shelter is always pushing forward, finding more needs to fill.
From people living out of tents and backpacks in the forgotten corners of society, to families who just need some help with groceries. From young workers just off a Greyhound bus or Amtrak passenger car who arrived to find no job waiting for them, to a new, single mother who can’t afford diapers, the Williamsburg House of Mercy has dedicated all of its resources to be of assistance.
It isn’t the only shelter or kitchen in the area, but it is unique.
“This currently is the only zero barrier place that people can come in the community,” Woloszynowski said.
What that means is there is no regard for a criminal record or current substance use. If somebody needs help, they don’t even need to bring an ID.
Woloszynowski said it’s a housing and help first mentality. No ultimatums. No proselytizing. No games. Just “charity freely given.”
She was standing in the pantry, shelves lined with canned vegetables, noodles, diapers, womens’ hygiene products, medicine, camping supplies and much more.
“Any of the things that they need that make them feel human,” she said.
If you or anybody you know is experiencing homelessness or needs any of the assistance mentioned above, visit the Williamsburg House of Mercy or call 757-253-0664.
To donate to the Williamsburg House of Mercy or shop for the pantry, visit their website.