Church offers a home for the night

Overflow program serves homeless who fail to get into shelters

By Dave Kern, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 

Winter Hospitality Overflow

When: Through March 31.

Where: St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Orchards and St. Paul Lutheran Church in downtown Vancouver.

Guests: St. Paul serves single men and St. Andrew serves families.

Why: The program exists because there is not enough shelter for all homeless people in Clark County.

To volunteer: Contact Kevin Hiebert at 360-699-5106 or by email at who@icfth.com.

Website: www.whoprogram.org or www.facebook.com/...>

LAST ‘WHO’ SEASON BY THE NUMBERS:

Bed nights: 9,528.

Persons served: 479.

Volunteers: 1,688.

Volunteer hours: 11,752.

The doors opened at 6:30 sharp and 33 souls came in from the cold to claim a spot Sunday night at St. Andrew Lutheran Church.

For the eighth year, the church has been one of two hosts of the Winter Hospitality Overflow (WHO) program.

“I feel like when I come here, I feel a positive influence,” said Genevieve Fisher, 29, an Evergreen High School graduate who needed a place to stay with her 15½-month-old daughter Sojourner Yokum and boyfriend Douglas Coleman.

“It’s warm, in temperature and spirit,” Fisher said. “I lost my job as a wildland firefighter. I’m hoping to get a job and possibly go back to school in January.”

The WHO program helps during the winter months when Clark County’s homeless shelters are overbooked. The program started on Nov. 1 and since then St. Andrew turned people away on four nights because the church was full.

Guests are given an alcohol breath test and then offered a snack, TV time and a bed in the gymnasium. A caseworker with Share, an organization that helps the homeless, offers advice on services.

After a continental breakfast the next morning, folks are sent out at 8 a.m. so the church can do its daily business. The program runs seven days a week for five months.

Why does the church do it?

“It is just a calling … as Christians,” said the Rev. Jim Stender of the St. Andrew effort. “The thing that Jesus would do.”

Heart for homeless

Beth Oliver said 94 other volunteers have helped at St. Andrew since Nov. 1. She said volunteers want to experience homelessness as “more than just a conceptual issue.”

Oliver said a first-time volunteer told her that “everybody needed to do this, because it was a real awakening.”

“I have a heart for the homeless,” said Michelle Shernisky, who worships at Orchards United Methodist Church. As WHO volunteer coordinator, she calls churches and asks if members want to help.

Linda Brooks of Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Felida is one of the those volunteers. She was serving her first night on Sunday. Her career has been in social work and she said, “I’ve seen the need.”

Michael Dierking, 35, said he’s been coming to St. Andrew for a while. “Three years in a row. Homeless for three years,” he said. “The economy brought me down big time.“ He was with his wife, Rachael.

“Honestly, this is a great organization,” Dierking said. He said the homeless don’t want pity. “Just give us a little bit of respect and dignity and that goes a long way.”

Judy Haworth, 65, was at the St. Andrew for the first time this year on Sunday night. But she said she’s been homeless for five years and had been staying with friends. She took early retirement as a bartender.

Haworth said “these people are wonderful” about volunteers but offered this thought on homelessness in Clark County: “It’s getting worse every day.’

WHO coordinator Kevin Hiebert praised the hundreds of volunteers.

“The community has been a wonderful resource,” he said. “My office is full of coats and blankets and socks and underwear.

“There will always be a need for a warm safe place for those who do not have a home,” Hiebert said. “And it is always nice to have an open door.”