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Snowfall on trees, Germany.
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This has been a really LONG 48 hours!

The blizzard that hit the eastern coast of the United States left us buried yesterday under what was about 2 feet of snow. This was in addition to the 18 inches or so that was already on the ground from last week’s storm! The official snow total for Philadelphia so far this winter is 70.3 inches of snow. That makes this the snowiest winter on record so far–the last record was set in the winter of 1995-1996, when there was 65.5 inches of snow.

All that to say, this has been an interesting week at TLC’s Code Blue Shelter. On Tuesday afternoon, just hours before the storm was supposed to start, we made the decision as a staff and volunteers to keep the shelter open from 8 p.m. on Tuesday evening until 8 a.m. on Thursday morning, so that our guests would have respite from the storm during the day on Wednesday. The Lower Bucks Center for Church and Community homeless shelter network has referred to this idea of keeping a Code Blue Shelter open additional hours during extreme snow emergencies as “Code White.”

And “white” it was! I arrived at the shelter for my shift a little after 11 p.m. on Tuesday evening. When I left at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, my car was literally buried! It took me and 3 guys to dig out. It was the same story Thursday morning–it took 2 volunteers and 2 of our homeless guests to dig out the remaining cars in the lot when we finally closed the shelter this morning at 8 a.m.

We were very fortunate to be able to keep the shelter open for “Code White” during the last 48 hours. Many thanks to the dedicated volunteers and staff people who spent their snow day at the church (and slept in their offices, and risked travel on dangerous roads to be on time for their shift) so that others might be sheltered from the weather. We are truly blessed.

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Photo #34: The kindness of strangers
Image by elycefeliz via Flickr

It was COLD on Tuesday night.

One of the questions we have had as a fledgling shelter is, “How do we get the local guys to come in out of the cold and sleep in our shelter?” There are a couple of guys who come regularly, but we believe there are many more who do not come. We don’t know why–maybe they don’t know we’re here, maybe they know but don’t trust us, or maybe there is some other reason.

We have been fortunate enough to have the support of CHOC, the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center of Montgomery County, since we opened our doors in early December. We are grateful that they have taken us under their wings and “shown us the ropes.” I have been really impressed by the support they have given us: everything from helping us gain familiarity with the system of services, to bringing men into our shelter, to accompanying us on outreach.

“Outreach,” when we are talking about homeless shelters, means that we go out into the community to the places where homeless people live. We meet them where they are, build relationships with them, and try work together to get them the services they need. During a time of such fierce cold, one of the most immediate needs is for emergency shelter.

I was part of an outreach team on Tuesday night. We walked downtown Lansdale at about 10 p.m., watching and talking to people. We wanted to see who was hanging around the train station and the bus stops–we were watching to see if they were still there after the next bus or train. We talked to the night shift at the 24-hour Rite Aid in town. Yes, we were told, there are a few guys who hang around here. Some of them wash up in the sinks in our public bathrooms during the night. We talked to the police. No, they told us, there are no homeless people in Lansdale. No homeless people in Lansdale? We drove past the local laundromat, and through some of the alleys behind the local businesses. No sign of anyone. Perhaps the police are right?

The team from CHOC believes they are out there. “The colder it gets, and the longer people are outside in it, the deeper they go into hiding, and the harder they are to find.” We have to keep trying. It is not unusual to not find anyone the first time out on outreach.

“We will come back next week during the daylight hours. We’ll visit local service providers, walk the railroad tracks, and travel the alleys. If they’re out there, we’ll find them.”

I hope so. It’s COLD out there.

What is outreach like? Watch these ABC6 news stories about outreach in Philadelphia to learn more:

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“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” –Luke 2:7

There was no place for them in the inn, and yet Mary knew how blessed she was, and what a wonderful gift she had been given. The writer of Luke reminds the reader several times that “Mary treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19 & 51).

I spent Christmas Eve overnight and Christmas morning in a homeless shelter.

There was a ham dinner on Christmas Eve. There were good friends. There was laughter, a poetry reading, and a hot breakfast Christmas morning. There were gifts of warm socks and new winter hats that mysteriously just “showed up” to be given away. There were hugs from new friends.

Somebody said to me during the day on Christmas Eve, “I can’t believe that you want to spend Christmas Eve at the Code Blue Shelter. Christmas is about family, and you’re willing to sacrifice that?” I TOTALLY understand that feeling. I know that this isn’t for everyone, and you shouldn’t do it if you don’t love it. But for us, whose family lives elsewhere, this was a way for me and my husband to have a meaningful Christmas. We are fortunate that we have found friendship with some of the men who stay in our shelter. We are also fortunate to have friends who believed this would be meaningful way to spend Christmas–and so we all did it together.

So we came to our shelter after Christmas Eve worship, decked out in sweatpants and bedroom slippers, and spent the night at church among friends–old and new. In the morning, a family from our congregation postponed their Christmas gift opening to come and serve a hot breakfast. After cleanup and good-byes, we all stepped out into what had become a chilly, rainy Christmas Day. Some of us were going home to warm beds, Christmas trees strung with lights, and stockings stuffed with goodies. Others of us were returning to our tents or our cars, the few belongings that we own now cold and wet from the rain. The shelter will be closed for several of the next nights, since the temperatures will be too warm for Code Blue. What many people don’t realize is that too warm for Code Blue doesn’t mean it isn’t cold outside–it just means it isn’t cold enough to open the shelter. The men who come to sleep at Trinity on Code Blue nights will pass several cold, wet nights outside before we open again. There is no place for them in the inn.

Driving home on Christmas Day, the song “O Holy Night” came on the radio. For some reason, I couldn’t stop it–the floodgates opened and I cried. I sat there in my car at the red light crying. It might have been the lack of sleep, but I think it was probably something more–gratitude, overwhelming love, understanding, and other things I don’t know how to express. Something that was said by one of the men who sleeps at the shelter was ringing in my ears. He said, “You know, I am really blessed. Not everyone has a place like this to spend the night and people like you to be with. I may not have very much, but there are others who have less. I am really blessed.”

Maybe not having a place in the inn makes people realize how blessed they are. I wish we could all know how blessed we are–the way that Mary did, and the way that our friend at the shelter does.

It was a Holy Night, indeed.

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It actually began well before that in the summer of 2009 when someone in our weekly staff meeting thought it might be a good idea to explore opening our own non-profit so we could receive outside funding for some of the work we’d been doing. It turned out that “should we start a non-profit” to help with ministry would be the starting point of a larger conversation that would end up asking much bigger questions:

  • What needs do people in our community have that are not being met?
  • Who are the agencies who work to help people in need, and what kinds of work do they do?
  • How can we be a part of that work–would our contribution be welcomed, and if so, how can we get busy helping?

We got together a group of people with expertise or interest in the non-profit social service sector, and we started with prayer. We asked God to guide what we firmly believed would be a discernment process.

“God, help us to know what you would have us do. Show us your will. Help us to be your hands in the world.”

We read scripture passages about justice and advocacy: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

And then, after taking care of the spiritual work, we got to the physical work: We canvassed the neighborhood. We asked a lot of questions of a lot of agencies. What we learned was astounding. A public school system where more than 50% of the high schoolers are on subsidized meal plans. Kids who go to bed hungry because parents prefer to spend their money on alcohol than on food. A staggering rate of homelessness and a community that is trying at best to ignore it, and at worst to drive it out of the town limits. An electric company with a corner on the market that is turning off electricity in homes with young children because of overdue balances of under $100. The list went on and on….

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