A Shelter from the Cold
Gulfport Trinity church opens its doors on cold winter nights.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. Matthew 25:35 (NIV)
As Pastor Denny Belus watched the thermometer fall in December of 2010, he knew his neighbors were going to be in trouble. By all accounts, they were unprepared for the record cold temperatures in Gulfport — an area more accustomed to Florida’s normally mild winters.
Trinity Church of the Nazarene was already reaching out to the needy and homeless in the neighborhood through their “Open Arms” ministry, which provides food and clothing, but Pastor Belus knew folks in the neighborhood needed more help in this cold snap. He contacted Pinellas County about the church building becoming an official Cold Weather Shelter.
“This isn’t a traditional homeless shelter,” he explains. “Some of these people just don’t have heat where they live.” Several were members of his congregation. “I thought it was a shame that people had to be cold.”
The church provides temporary shelter for up to 20 people when the temperature drops below 40 degrees. Guests receive a hot evening meal, a sleeping mat and blanket, and a hot breakfast. They leave the shelter by 6 AM.
“The county gave the church a little money and provided sleeping mats, but the food and everything else comes from donations,” says Judy Ryan, who coordinates the program and schedules volunteers.
Volunteers serve in three shifts, coming from the congregation or other area churches: the first shift checks in guests and serves dinner, the second shift provides security for the middle of the night, and the third shift comes at 4 AM to serve breakfast and clean up.
That’s except for one volunteer, an 83 year-old woman named Cookie.
According to Judy, Cookie volunteers any time the shelter is open. She helps set up, check people in, and serve dinner. In the morning she helps prepare and serve breakfast, and cleans up after the guests have left. In between she sleeps on a sofa in the church office.
“She’s a great volunteer.”
Other volunteers pick up people for transport to the shelter, wash and disinfect the bedding, or prepare and freeze the casseroles served for dinner.
“Over three months last winter we were open 20 nights or more,” Judy recalls. “Once we were open 6 nights in a row. That was a little tough.”
Judy says some of the guests are semi-homeless, meaning they have a roof over their heads, but no access to hygiene facilities. They may live in a tent or a vehicle. Others live in mobile homes with no heat. Many are elderly. Some guests also volunteer to help serve food or clean up.
Guests check in from 5 PM until 8 PM, when the doors are locked. They are checked for illegal drugs or alcohol on their person. Backpacks are stored in a separate room. Guests are escorted outside to smoke, if necessary.
“They have to comply with the rules,” explains Pastor Belus. “The police check in on us a couple of times a night. We don’t take any chances with our volunteers.”
Although the church does not have shower facilities, guests can wash up in the bathroom sink, if necessary. Judy says the church often receives donations of soap, toothpaste, socks, and other personal care items for distribution at the Cold Weather Shelter.
Pastor Belus would like to see the church provide the shelter again in 2011, but stricter requirements from the county may make it impossible. Still, he is hopeful.
“You have to meet the needs of your community,” says Pastor Belus. “And that’s where this community is right now.”