Well We’re Making Do in Allentown

I had trouble sleeping last night. Below freezing temperatures arrived early, about 10° below average for this time of year. I couldn’t help but think of those who didn’t have a warm place to stay. Unfortunately the city of Allentown’s Warming Station isn’t ready to open, and won’t be ready to open as planned on November 1. Again. Wouldn’t it be great if the Warming Station (WS) were so well-funded, so well-planned, and so well-prepared that it could have opened early in response to this cold snap?

Why isn’t it…
          …well-funded? Actually, I’d say none of the agencies, organizations or churches that work with those who are homeless and poor has enough money to do what they need to do, much less to take on another project. The Lehigh Conference of Churches’ Board decided they could not manage the WS this year because of a significant funding shortfall. No one else came forward to manage it, probably because they don’t have enough funding for their current needs either. Everybody is scrambling for funding these days. Still they make do as best as they can.

Why isn’t it…
          …. well-planned? The Conference of Churches’ decision came late in August, so the City had to scramble to find a manager for the WS. Kudos to Mayor Pawlowski who recruited someone with considerable experience and expertise to manage the facility. But between the lengthy contracting process (which necessitates waiting to reveal the new manager’s name) and the inexplicable delay in maintenance and repairs to the WS itself, the current estimate is they’ll open by November 8 – an improvement over the initial projected date of November 14.

However, with the frigid weather upon us, Zion’s Church elders and deacons once again decided to provide a “stopgap” warming station beginning November 1. So now we’re scrambling to find funds to pay for additional staff, at the same time as we’re scrambling for funds to get our breakfast ministry to the homeless up and running. But of course, somehow we also will make do.

Why isn’t it…
          …. well-prepared? In some significant ways we are better prepared than last year. Some of last year’s problems, like storage for personal belongings at the WS, and plans for sheltering during a snow emergency, have been addressed. Also, this year the Coordinating Committee has an active role in providing support, sharing ideas and wisdom, and pooling resources to strengthen our work with those who are homeless as we enter the warming shelter season.

But everyone on the Committee has added these bi-monthly meetings to their already too-full schedules and have gone “above and beyond the call of duty” as caseworkers, nurses, program administrators, clergy, etc. Somehow it will come together, but Corinne Feldman’s question to the community last winter still hangs in the air: “Who’s responsible?”

Maybe I’m idealistic to believe we shouldn’t have to scramble at so many levels to provide these basic human services to people in need. But then I realize: we have become like those we serve, who also have to scramble every day to survive and make do with so much less than they need.

So we’ll keep scrambling, and we’ll make do. I just hope that is enough in this coming winter season.

Among the Homeless a Community of Grace

Homeless w-BibleA community of grace appears, Brigadoon-like, at Zion’s church each evening.

Since April 4 we have opened our Fellowship Hall every night to provide a safe, warm, dry place to sleep for the men and women who found themselves on the street again after the Alliance Hall Shelter (6CWS) abruptly closed on April 3.

As you might imagine, I’ve had a conversation with the fire marshal and another with the director of the health bureau. Of course we are following their recommendations, but our Fellowship Hall was not made for this kind of sheltering. Grace begins with an understanding that it is okay for us to provide this stopgap, but only until April 30, the date originally promised to the homeless.

The response from the Christian community has been heartening and heartwarming as volunteers shared whatever talents they had with our guests: an MD who gave several hours of her time to consult with anyone who had health concerns; a professional singer who sang an operatic happy birthday to a woman who celebrated her 79th birthday in our shelter, and the local educator who brought her a cake, flowers and a Happy Birthday balloon; the homeless advocate who spent hours and hours on the phone, finally getting a man admitted to the hospital for mental health concerns; a member of Zion’s staff who knows someone who knows someone who offered a landscaping job to one of the men here, and who then found a pair of size 11 work boots to replace the man’s tattered sneakers. Grace abounds, often in small ways.

Our guests also help one another: wisdom, such as it is, about how to live on the street is passed along; a blanket is given by one who has two to another who has none because we ran out. Several people brought canned goods that they had received elsewhere during the day, giving them to kitchen volunteers in a stone-soup-like ritual. There are shared cigarettes, shared tips about who may be hiring, plenty of shared humor. Grace upon grace.

Many of our guests surprise me with their desire to help in whatever way they can, with their polite demeanor and frequent thank yous. One night, when one of the men didn’t think enough people had appropriately expressed their gratitude to the church for its hospitality, he shouted for attention. Everyone got quiet and he reminded them to be sure to render thanks to the pastor. So I collect gratitude like pennies in an offering plate, so many “mites” that I pass along to the people who made this stopgap ministry possible.

Yes, there have been a few problems, and the APD responds quickly and resolves those issues effectively. One man who we had to ask to leave (complicated story) apologized to the APD officers for the trouble, and then asked me for a prayer and a blessing before he left.

Yes, there are a few people who are taking advantage of the kindness offered here. But perhaps they didn’t find such kindness in many other places in their lives, so they suck it up wherever they find it. Even so, they are the exception, and as long as they follow the rules, we forbear them because we know we don’t always have the wisdom to separate the wheat and weeds (Matthew 13:29).

And even now as I am typing this, 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday evening, our door buzzer sounds. It is a 45 year-old woman discharged today from a detox facility, formerly living in Allentown but now with nowhere to go. She says they told her to come to Zion’s church, that we have a shelter where she can spend the night. I ask, who sent you here? A social worker at The Horsham Clinic, some fifty miles away.

We have been a stopgap shelter for less than three weeks, and we’re getting referrals! As the days have passed, more and more people with nowhere to go found their way to our doors. I have received phone calls from other shelters as well as from pastors and ministries in the Allentown area, and sadly we are at capacity; we have to turn them all away.

But the woman from the clinic still sits in our Fellowship Hall, warming herself after a trek to the church from the bus station in windy, 54 degree weather. It’s supposed to drop to 36 degrees in Allentown tonight. She contents herself with a warm place to sit and only a promise that she will be on a wait-list in case one of our regulars found somewhere else to go. Then she can take that one’s place for the night.

A community of grace appears, Brigadoon-like, at Zion’s church each evening. What will become of them on May 1?