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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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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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