For many of our listeners, the worst thing a colder-than-usual winter can bring is a higher heating bill. But for the homeless, the frigid temperatures could be a matter of life and death. How do Centre County residents who don’t have a home get out of the cold?
At the State College Assembly of God church, about a dozen men and women of various ages gather around tables to dig in to a hot meal. The folks are guests of Centre County’s Out of the Cold program, a temporary emergency overnight shelter that’s run collaboratively by ten local churches. The churches take turns hosting the shelter for two weeks at a time from October to April, the time of year when sleeping outside could be dangerous. In fact, the program started three years ago when a homeless man died from exposure in Bellefonte while spending a winter night in a tent.
There are men and women, young and old who participate in the program. One is going through a custody battle; another recently left a domestic violence situation. Several others work full-time but are unable to find an apartment. Bob, who doesn’t give his last name, is a recent arrival. He’s just been released from two years in the nearby Rockview Correctional Facility.
Bob says he found out about the Out of the Cold program after he was dropped off in downtown State College without a bus ticket. He was told to go around and see what the churches could do for him. At one downtown church, two college students found information about Out of the Cold on the internet.
“I called the lady, she took my name, birthdate, and everything, and said go over to this church. It was a block away," he says.
Bob found the church and was welcomed.
Kendra Gettig, one of the co-chairs of the Out of the Cold program and a community outreach coordinator for Calvary Baptist Churches, says the Out of the Cold program “exists to provide anyone who needs a place to sleep with a place to sleep.”
She says the program is very much a collaborative project. While the Community Help Center in downtown State College does the basic intake process and follows up with guests, the participating churches depend on volunteers to stay overnight and provide meals. And though volunteers can connect the homeless with agencies that might be able to help with longer-term solutions, the program itself is simply meant to provide overnight shelter.
She says, “It’s literally just a program to take people in from out of the cold."
Gettig says every guest gets a cot, a couple of blankets, and a warm meal. The shelter is open from 9 PM to 7 AM. The hours are short because the program relies on volunteers—most of whom have day jobs.
Gettig says the hardest part of the program is having to ask people to leave. The guests usually go downtown to dining establishments that have proven to be friendly to the homeless, like McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Panera, and Irving’s. Many spend the majority of their days at the public library.
Ginny Poorman has been working to find a community-based solution to this problem of where the homeless can go during the day. This month, with the help of many volunteers, she opened a daytime drop-in center called Hearts for the Homeless, which she hopes will be a welcome alternative to the library and restaurants.
Hearts for the Homeless is located on Fraser St., directly below Dunkin Donuts. It’s a large room with lots of seating, an office area, and a wall of plastic bins. The idea is to provide a place that will allow those without homes a safe and comfortable place to hang out. There’s a ready supply of hot drinks and snacks. Sleeping and storing belongings is allowed.
Poorman says Hearts for the Homeless will provide services for their guests, such as help with resume-writing and housing placement.
“It’s really going to depend on each client, what they need, what they’re looking to get out of it,” she says.
Back at the Assembly of God church, Out of the Cold volunteer Tina (who can't share her last name due to program policy) is putting together bag lunches for the next day. Tina says she has a very personal reason why she helps with the program. She once spent a night out in the cold, with her then three- and five-year-old children.
Tina says, “Since I was homeless at one time, I needed to be here."
She says serving the homeless now is like coming full circle.
Betty Lou Morgan, who’s in charge of Out of the Cold when it’s hosted at her church, says it’s the community’s job to serve those in need, no matter what they’re facing.
“That’s what Out of the Cold is all about,” she says.
The Community Help Centre manages intake for the Out of the Cold program. Visit their website here.
Visit the Hearts for the Homeless Facebook page.
Learn more about Centre County’s housing services.