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I was planning on writing a blog this week about how the Code Blue season is over and we can close up shop now and go on about our lives… What I realized today is that even though the Code Blue season may be over, this ministry is not. Far from it….

I was just saying to my husband last night that I wish I knew what has happened to some of the guys we have served at our Code Blue Shelter this winter. In total, we provided shelter for 22 different men between December 1, 2009, and March 31, 2010. We know where some of them are–some of them have found homes, some of them have gone to live with family. Some of them are in more permanent shelters, and some of them are still homeless. We haven’t really heard from many of them–we know what we know about their whereabouts because our partner agencies have told us, or because we helped some of them get into their new homes or situations.

Well, be careful what you wish for! This morning when I arrived at work there was a envelope for me from the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. Upon opening the envelope, I discovered a letter from one of our guys, who we’ll call Bill. Bill was arrested for a parole violation not long after he stayed with us at our shelter in February. It turns out that one of the requirements of parole is that you provide your parole officer with a verifiable address where you are living. Being homeless kind of makes that difficult. So, Bill violated his parole because he could not provide a permanent address. Essentially, he is back in jail for being homeless.

Bill was writing me to let us know what had happened to him, and to thank us for our kindness when he stayed with us. He was also asking for help. He is hoping to be released in the next few days with time served, and he needs a place to go. Otherwise, he may end up back in the same situation again.

This is when things get difficult for me, because I know that our ministry as it stands currently is not equipped to be able to handle requests like Bill’s. We DON’T have somewhere for him to stay. In fact, there is nowhere in Lansdale that he could stay–not even a boarding house–that doesn’t have some sort of minimum income requirement. These are the times when I feel really helpless. We don’t have the resources or the knowlege to go about helping people in this kind of trouble.

Fortunately, our partner agencies have come through for us again. The Executive Director at CHOC thinks she might be able to find room for him in a permanent shelter, perhaps even at CHOC. The Correctional Facility will release inmates to the shelter if they can guarantee a bed. Once at the shelter, Bill could gain access to government programs that could help get him back on his feet, and will also work with a social worker to re-integrate him into society. It sounds like Bill might actually be able to get the help he needs.

Which led me to another realization–even though the Code Blue season is coming to a close in just a few days, this ministry isn’t over. Not even close. We have built relationships with these men, and we will continue to be in relationship with them, even when the weather is not cold. We may not hear from them regularly. We may not hear from some of them ever again. When we do hear from them, they might be in need. But, they might not. Despite Bill’s need, he was also very gracious and really just wanted us to know what had happened to him. The tone of the letter didn’t indicate that he was really expecting anything–he was just hoping for something better and wanted to tell us about it. If we can do anything to help his situation, then we will, of course.

I will be posting that “end of season” blog in a few days, but I think it is going to have a different tone than I had originally planned. It’s NOT over….

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Snowfall on trees, Germany.
Image via Wikipedia

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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Railroad in Gyula (Hungary)
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As perhaps is normal whenever you start something new, this has been an eye-opening couple of weeks. We have learned things that both encourage and uplift us, and things that also might make it easy for us to become disheartened. My range of emotions about this project has been swinging between ecstatic and completely disappointed, and everything in between.

Looking back at the reasons why we opened this shelter, it could be easy to get discouraged. We were told by our earliest local partner agency that there would be a lot of traffic at our shelter. They had the connections, and knew that there were at least 15 homeless men living on the railroad tracks along the commuter line, just outside Lansdale in the direction toward Philly. When they came to us with this information and asked us to open a shelter, we jumped at the opportunity. What an amazing answer to prayer! What we have discovered since then, however, is that if those men are out there, this particular partner agency does not have a relationship with them. Whether they were overly optimistic about their ability to get the men indoors, or knowingly overstated the truth about their existence, is unclear to me. Needless to say, the result has been rather anti-climactic. What is clear is that we have a lot of relationship-building that needs to be done among the homeless in our area if we ever expect them to trust us enough to come spend the night in our church building.

That is why outreach has become so important. I learned this week that the best time to do outreach and build relationships with members of the homeless community is during the summer. In the summer, homeless people are more visible in public places because of the warmer temperatures. We will need to do some intense outreach during this upcoming summer in order to really know who is out there that we can serve. Only then will we be able to make a decision about the future of our shelter.

The encouraging piece in all of this, however, is that we are helping people. Although the shelter is not getting as much traffic as we had hoped, we have had a few regular guests staying with us. One of those men is struggling with addiction and recovery and spent half the night up talking with me and my colleague one night a few weeks ago. The battle between darkness and light is going on inside him, and he is struggling with letting the light in. Being invited to share in that struggle with him has been a real blessing. Another one of our guests was able to find a more permanent solution to his problems through our shelter. Last Wednesday night he got connected to the county system and is now working toward a more permanent place to live. There is some sort of a healing process that we have noticed that is going on in the people we are keeping warm at night. I am glad we are able to help in some small way.

Another encouraging part of this project is the way that it has brought people from the community together in service to each other. We have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from our community–Trinity members and non-members, Lansdale residents, agencies, and even people from other counties! We have gotten checks in the mail. Someone left a bag full of knitted hats on the table in the shelter on Christmas Eve. Cookies and other goodies magically appear during the daytime. A local boy scout troop collected toothbrushes and toothpaste. Youth from a church in the next county over made baked ziti for dinner and brought it down. And then there are the volunteers–so many wonderful people from a variety of faiths and backgrounds, who are coming together under our roof with a common purpose–to serve others by providing a warm, safe place for people to sleep.

Finally, I have been encouraged by our relationships with Manna on Main Street, our local soup kitchen and food pantry, and with CHOC, the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center of Montgomery County. CHOC continues to go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to the help they are giving us. Their outreach team came out to our shelter again last week and took us out on outreach, this time accompanied by a woman from Lansdale who is living at the permanent shelter in Norristown. She is familiar with the homeless population here, and knew where to look. They are also the ones who are working with several of our guests to help them find more permanent solutions for themselves. The amount of help CHOC continues to give us, and the things they continue to teach us, show me that they will continue to be a valuable partner for us in the long haul. Manna has also asked how they can better partner with us in this project. They probably would have asked earlier, if we had been more diligent in speaking with them up front (check that off in the “things we’ve learned” column). They are excited about the possibilities of this ministry. We are going to begin talking with them about how they can help us build bridges between them, us, and the homeless population in the North Penn area.

When all is said and done, this is an exciting time for our shelter. We have hit a few bumps in the road that could be discouraging, but there are also a lot of good things that are in the works. We just have to keep on learning.

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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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