Homeless men get shelter from the cold

Winter Hospitality Overflow program offers warm welcome, food

By Dave Kern, Columbian assistant metro editor



Winter Hospitality Overflow program

When: Through March 31.

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

Guests: St. Paul has room for 24 single men. St. Andrew has 50 beds for families, couples and single women.

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

Needs: C-Tran bus passes, hygiene items, socks, underwear, gloves, money and volunteers.

Contact: Coordinator Kevin Hiebert at 360-699-5106, ext. 103, or visit Winter Hospitality Overflow.

photoSunday's night's stew was made by a couple who once were homeless and want to give back.

(/The Columbian)

It was 27 degrees at 6:30 p.m. Sunday when Geri Hiller opened the doors of St. Paul Lutheran Church and invited 30 homeless men to come in from the cold.

There are beds for 24; six would have to sleep on the floor.

No one complained. There was hot food to eat. Hot showers. And warmth from the evening's hosts.

For 10 years now, St. Paul has been one of two churches to host the Winter Hospitality Overflow, an effort to provide more beds in Clark County from November through March.

Hiller, a member of St. Paul, has been a volunteer for that decade.

"I didn't expect to like the guys as well as I do," Hiller said Sunday night before she greeted the men. "This has become my passion." Many of the men call her "Mom."

Carrie Wiman, a caseworker with Share, educates the men on services available. She wants to help them get jobs and their own places.

"Every single one of these guys has a different story," Wiman said. She said many had hard labor jobs earlier in their lives and "have literally worn out their bodies."

She echoed Hiller's words when saying, "They're so appreciative."

The men range in age from 18 to 62, and Wiman said hygiene items provided are coveted.

One man "said he hadn't had a toothbrush in a month."

"I'm grateful for this place," Franco Greco, 49, said as he dined on stew and salad. "Been on the street four years now."

Greco said he has done underground excavation work and hopes a job is in his future.

He has no family but said, "There is hope. Hope in Jesus. … He doesn't want me to give up. He's got something good for me down the pike."

Born and raised in Spokane, William Hern, 55, was happy to be at St. Paul on Sunday night.

"This place is great," he said. He said he has been on the street for two years.

"I want a job," Hern said. "I'd like to get trained for auto body. Right now, I'd take any job."

The WHO program relies on volunteers, many of them from area churches.

On Sunday, Dan and Jan Younce were helping out. They attend Vancouver First Friends Church. Dan has been volunteering for seven years, Jan for four.

"Christ has asked me to serve," Dan said. "You wouldn't know they are homeless. They're like you and me."

"These guys are so nice," Jan said, noting she started volunteering "almost out of guilt." Jan is a teacher at Camas High School and Dan is a bus driver for Vancouver Public Schools.

The Rev. Chris Nolte of St. Paul said that at first his congregation was hesitant about hosting homeless men every night for five months. Not anymore.

"We do it because people need shelter," Nolte said. "They also need to be welcomed … to let then know they're not alone.

"We care," he said.

Nolte said "about 50 communities of faith" ensure the program thrives.

In fact, the stew Sunday night was made by a couple who once were homeless.

In 2011, the program had 1,700 volunteers, said Kevin Hiebert, WHO coordinator.

"WHO serves a desperate need we have in the winter," Hiebert said. "This season has been filled to capacity on numerous nights."