By Barbara Van Reed
The United Presbyterian Church in Whitinsville began a brave new venture last winter, the opening of the Blackstone Valley Emergency Shelter, the first time such a facility had been available in the community.
The shelter provided a warm welcome and warm place to sleep for men, women, and children on the harshest winter nights, when temperatures fell below 15 degrees and snow fell more than three inches – weather so bad it could endanger their lives.
Town permitting allowed the temporary shelter to be open for just 35 nights, about one week a month during the winter. The need was there to be open every night, however, and that could only happen if more local churches participated.
Thus, shelter founder and director Leslie Reichert made it her mission this past spring and summer to find three more churches to participate for the coming winter season, each one hosting the shelter one week a month, or so she thought.
“God had different plans,” she laughs. “He said, ‘Leslie, you’re an idiot. Let me show you how it’s done.”
Here’s how it proceeded. The first church to sign on was St. Patrick’s Church in Whitinsville. “Fred Beauregard, who came to one of my training sessions last spring, said he wanted be a part of it, but wanted his own church to be a host. Fred went to the town officials, who told him ‘St. Patrick’s should do whatever Leslie did to get the permit.’ So, we created a template that other churches could use too.”
Next to sign on was the Pleasant Street Christian Reformed Church in Whitinsville. And then the Cornerstone Church in Uxbridge. “We created the wheel in Northbridge, and are now sharing it with Uxbridge,” said Leslie.
St. Patrick’s Church could only accommodate the shelter on Tuesdays nights, however, because of other activities, and Leslie’s plan for weekly rotations couldn’t work.
But meanwhile, discussions with three more churches had begun. “Do the math,” she says. “That’s seven churches, one for each day of the week!”
To obtain the special permit, the churches undergo a series of inspections. “The building inspector makes sure the building is up to code. The fire department ensures all safety standards are met. Then the Board of Health checks everything from the water temperature to how we disinfect the mats,” Leslie explained.
The Blackstone Valley Emergency Shelter could be ready to open this month, but for one issue: volunteers. “We need many more people now – it’s really big. We need hundreds,” said Leslie. Last year she had 60 volunteers, but some have moved, she said, and of course the actual open nights were maxed out at 35. With seven churches participating, the shelter can be open for 35 weeks, right through March and April.
Volunteers staff the shelter in four-hour shifts from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. The 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. and 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. shifts were particularly difficult to staff last year. For that reason, Leslie is considering bringing in lounge chairs that will allow volunteers to come in from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., and doze while the guests are sleeping.
The participating churches are not expected to provide the volunteers. “We are hoping to get members of other communities and other large congregations to help us.”
Volunteers must be 18 or older, and both men and women are needed. Each shift consists of one man and one woman, so husband-wife teams are welcomed. To volunteer, call the church office at 508-234-8220 and speak with Alice, the church secretary, or leave a message. Detailed information for volunteers, including online training, is posted on the website: www.whitinpres.org/shelter.
The Blackstone Valley Emergency Shelter also welcomes donations to support its start-up costs. A donation of $25 provides a comfortable mat for the guests to use.
Individuals and families who want to stay in a shelter should call 508-266-5122 for information about the schedule and host church. Weather reports and openings are generally available three days in advance. Those seeking shelter do not have to apply. “We just ask them to register. We don’t ask any questions,” said Leslie.
Who are the people who came to the shelter last year? They are the homeless people in the Blackstone Valley. They live in sheds, or shacks, in the parks, or in their car, or might be a victim of domestic abuse. The nearest permanent shelters are in Worcester and Framingham, said Leslie, and they have no way of getting to them. The emergency shelter helps them for one night; much more could be done, she notes, and tells about one man who was looking for a job. He said jobs are posted online and applications are online. But he didn’t have a computer and the library limited his use to 15 minutes.
“We already have four or five homeless people waiting for the shelter to open,” said Leslie. “But It’s not me doing this. It’s God, and nothing is too big for Him.”