Hi everyone, You haven’t heard from me for a long while, but rest assured you are always on my mind and in my heart. Recently, my time has been consumed with our Winter Shelter. Hopefully, by now, all of you know that during the winter AmeriCorps St. Louis operates a winter shelter. It made sense! When disasters arise, Members of our AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT) may be called to respond anywhere in the United States. The team is nationally acclaimed for its ability to set up Emergency Operations Centers, organize and engage unaffiliated volunteers and manage donations coordination. So, why not use those skills to address our hometown ‘critical unmet needs’.
It started some five years ago at the urgent request of the City Department of Human Services during a particularly bitter winter. Moved by the critical lack of emergency shelters in the City of St. Louis, especially needed during the brutal cold months, AmeriCorps St. Louis Members urged us to continue to open our doors to meet that need. The following year, AmeriCorps St. Louis recruited two other churches to join us in partnership with Winter Outreach, a volunteer group who travels the City at night serving the homeless. Up until then, Winter Outreach could only offer blankets and hot drinks or snacks, but had nowhere to take people given that there is a large shortage of shelter beds. Now, we are in our fifth year and we are up to nine shelters in our network, insuring that everyone who wants a bed, has one.
So let me tell you a story that occurred last week when the high was predicted to be 3 degrees below zero.
When it becomes ‘killer cold’ most of those who live on the street, who might otherwise be reluctant to leave the safety of their ‘spot’ or leave their belongings, see the critical necessity of coming into a shelter. Those who do not seek shelter during these critical times are generally those who are most fragile, unable to comprehend the extreme danger. Early this week when the temperature dove into the sub-zeros was just such a time. Those of us who serve the homeless were up against the clock, because we knew that without timely intervention, people would die.
But knowing who was still out there this past Sunday and Monday nights, or where they might be trying to hide from the cold was the challenge. I happen to direct the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Winter Shelter, one of a network of eight shelters who open our doors when the need is great and the outside elements are in that ‘killer cold’ range. This is our fifth year partnering with Winter Outreach volunteers who comb the city’s underpasses, vacant warehouses, bus stops, sidewalk grates and high-rise parking lots to bring blankets or a ride to shelters. But it was the snow that accompanied the killer-cold temperatures that finally stopped even Winter Outreach volunteers from getting to everyone.
By ten o’clock Sunday night those who had made it to our shelter were settling in for the night. Some were already fast asleep under warm blankets, while others enjoyed the luxury of an old movie and some popcorn. Then, Chris and Melvin aka Ghost, guests at our shelter who normally live down on the riverfront, sounded the alarm. They were almost frantic when they realized that ‘Chicago’ had not come in, and were adamant that somehow he needed to be found or that he would freeze to death. “He sleeps on the cobble stones wrapped in plastic near the water’s edge. People will think that it’s just a pile of trash, but its Chicago wrapped up in that plastic!” Well, it just so happened that a couple of bicycle cops had been redirected to go and find anyone still out, now, in what had become blizzard conditions. So these young bike cops were sent on the mission to find Chicago and ‘bring him in alive!’
At five in the morning I awoke to a call from one of those bike cops named Larry Dampiere. ‘Sorry to wake you but my partner and I have been down on the riverfront three times and can’t find him. Can you give us any better direction than what we have already?’ ‘I can do better than that, I told him. ‘I will wake Chris and see if he will go with you, because he says that unless you really know what to look for, Chicago won’t be found until it’s too late.’ Rising out of a sound sleep, Chris, who had sounded the alarm some seven hours earlier, rushed into his clothes. Slightly reticent to jump into a police car, the unlikely team took off. Within the hour they returned with Chicago, now better known as Troy—cold, wet, hungry, but alive!
It would have been so easy to have had a tragic outcome had it not been for the caring and tenacity of this small band of men who made it happen. Someone else might just as simply have chosen to enjoy the new found warm cot and not notice that there was someone missing, much less be adamant that he be found before ‘he’ll freeze to death!’. Someone less diligent might have driven down L. K. Sullivan Blvd., and when no one was obviously lying on the cobblestones, assumed that he had moved into shelter—certainly not returning three times, much less requesting that Chris, a guest at a shelter, physically come with him to look again.
An improbable team of four good men who refused to give up easily. And because of them, there remains a fifth—alive and well.
We have no budget to operate our shelter. It’s always been so ‘AmeriCorps of us’ to meet the need and worry about how we are going to pay for it later! Hospitals give us sheets and blankets, Faultless Laundry does the laundry for all the shelters, churches give us food and several have brought us needed gloves, boots and socks. However, we have a lot of other costs where I need your help.
There are three ERT Members assigned from November to March that we need to support, and then there is the gas to heat the UAC during the winter, that in years past we used to keep just high enough that the pipes didn’t freeze. There are constant runs to the store for drink mix, coffee and diapers. Hopefully you get the picture. So if any part of this story tugged at your heart, allow me to tug on your wallet. If I could have 100 of you give $50, we would have $5,000 which would cover a large part of the shelter costs. Not all of you have $50 to spare, but if you consider this a debt, not a frill, you may be able to make it happen. Several of you could make that $50 a $100. So right now hit the www.acstl.org ‘give now’ button and make that difference.