Auburn parish runs homeless shelter - Catholic Courier

Auburn parish runs homeless shelter

Every night several of Auburn’s homeless men make their way to Holy Family Parish. They know that on the parish grounds they’ll find a safe place where they know they won’t be turned away, but instead will be welcomed with open arms.

The parish opened its Chapel House overnight shelter for homeless men in December 2007 in the former Holy Family School building’s gymnasium, said Sandi Mettler, the shelter’s coordinator. Chapel House has provided dinner, a light breakfast and a warm, safe place to sleep for dozens of men since then, and Chapel House volunteers have helped several of the men get back on their feet and rent apartments, she said.

"We’re running 100 percent on volunteers and 100 percent on donations," Mettler remarked.

The impetus for the shelter came from a meeting Father Dennis Shaw, pastor, attended last year with representatives from the Auburn/Cayuga Homeless Task Force. Father Shaw learned there were more than 50 people living without shelter in Auburn, Mettler said.

"Father came back to the parish and asked the parishioners what they thought about our opening a shelter to help those people who were in need," she said. "We had a few mixed feelings on it at first, so we took a vote on it. Father is very much for the people, and he likes to have his parishioners have a say in anything that goes on at the parish."

The vote revealed there were more parishioners in favor of the shelter idea than opposed to it, so volunteers began working on the project last summer. These volunteers understood that homeless people are scary to some people — especially children and the elderly — and they tried to put together a solid plan that would address and ease parishioners’ concerns, Mettler said.

"Some of the people were a little hesitant. There was a concern about the safety of the parishioners coming and going. Do we want these people hanging around the church?" she said.

Chapel House organizers decided the shelter only should be open between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. The homeless men, called clients, are not allowed into the shelter until parishioners and groups using the building have left. There also is a security team on duty while the shelter is open, and teams of volunteers supervise the clients overnight, Mettler said.

"We don’t want (clients) approaching any of the parishioners for money, asking them for a ride, anything like that. We’ve also educated our clients that when the shelter closes at 8 (a.m.) they need to leave the premises," she said.

Chapel House clients also aren’t allowed to drink, abuse drugs or swear on the premises, and volunteers and clients alike are expected to treat every person at the shelter with respect, Mettler said.

"We run a clean shelter and we can’t bend the rules, she added.

The shelter’s clients apparently don’t mind the rules. Chapel House can accommodate up to 19 men each night, and thus far it has had up to 11 clients at one time. More than 60 men took advantage of the shelter during its first month of operation in December 2007, and more than 100 men sought refuge there in March, Mettler said.

After signing in at Chapel House clients receive a mattress, sheets, a pillow, pillow case and as many blankets as they need. They’re also given a light dinner, which often consists of reheated food that was donated by local restaurants, Mettler said. Chapel House volunteers are not authorized to do any real cooking, but they do the best they can to provide warm meals for the clients.

"We call it creative cooking, with a microwave and a toaster," Mettler said.

After eating and setting up their bedding, most of the clients read or sit together and talk before going to bed at about 10 p.m., said volunteer Cal Weldon.

In the morning each Chapel House client receives a light breakfast and puts his bedding into a plastic bag with his name on it so he can reuse the bedding if he comes to the shelter that night. During the day the clients are expected to visit agencies, such as the Department of Social Services, that can help them with the specific issues they face, Mettler said. Volunteers help clients determine what issues they’re facing and where they can go for help, and the clients need to bring proof of their visits when they return to the shelter that evening.

"This isn’t a long-term thing. We’re trying to get them back into the swing of things and get their life back together," she said.

More than 50 volunteers take turns staffing Chapel House’s overnight shifts. Some work four-hour shifts and others work the entire 12-hour shift, but they always work in teams, Mettler said. Holy Family parishioner Ken Kanya often volunteers for the whole 12-hour shift on Friday nights.

"I think I get more out of it than I put into it. It’s not about you. It’s all about the guys," Kanya said. "They want to get some food, they want a warm, safe place to sleep. If we can do that, then we’ve done our job."

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