John Leinenbach, 55, has been homeless for about 10 years.
He lived in a car and, eventually, on the street after a divorce and a stack of medical bills left him unprepared. These challenging conditions are only exacerbated by the cold and wet season.
On the street, Leinenbach relies on a large plastic bag he uses as a sleeping sack to keep him dry, as well as a sleeping mat made of grocery bags to provide padding. If he has an emergency blanket, he’s lucky. Being homeless makes someone feel invisible and forgotten, he said, and the cold makes it worse.
“The winter gets into your bones, and you get tired,” Leinenbach said. “It gets to the point where you would literally want somebody to end it. You’re railing against the gods in the sky — you feel hopeless.”
Fortunately, Leinenbach has access to an emergency homeless shelter.
The Winter Hospitality Overflow, or WHO, operates two emergency shelters that are set to open Nov. 1 to shield the homeless from these harsh situations. They will be open every night through the end of March.
The shelters are located at St. Andrew in east Vancouver and St. Paul Lutheran Church downtown. Both locations house up to 30 people — St. Andrew is tailored toward women and children, while St. Paul is designated for men. All WHO guests are pre-screened through the Council for the Homeless Housing Hotline, 360-695-9677. If WHO shelters are at full capacity, there is also a Satellite Overflow Shelter opening nightly from Nov. 16 to March 15, which can be accessed through the hotline.
Volunteers are an integral aspect of the program and the WHO is looking for individuals to fill these positions, said Jane Seidel, a member of St. Andrew.
There are two shifts at St. Andrew, 6-10 p.m. and 7-9 a.m., and one at St. Paul, 6-8:30 p.m. Each shift has a list of tasks that must be completed like preparing food, cleaning after mealtimes, and turning lights on and off. Those who are interested can find more information at whoprogram.org. Volunteers must be fully vaccinated.
Cindy Muse, St. Andrew’s pastor, said the most important aspect of running the emergency shelters is to show compassion to the guests and make them feel like they are home. That’s why it is essential to have volunteers who are willing to engage with the WHO’s guests, she said.
The organization’s program isn’t a long-term solution. Rather, it’s a starting point.
Guests are introduced to community resources to help them reestablish their lives. Each person can meet with an engagement specialist to identify barriers and develop solutions to overcome trauma, Seidel said.
The WHO shelters provide a warm, dry and predictable place for homeless people to experience normalcy. Many people who go to the shelters have not lived a convenient life, said Geri Hiller, St. Paul’s lay minister and a WHO co-founder.
“They all have their challenges and it takes a long time for them to trust you,” Hiller said. “So, when they look you in the eyes for the first time — that’s a big deal.”
Precautions are set in place to keep guests safe and healthy, such as air purifiers and dividers. Those staying in the shelter must always wear a mask unless they are eating and sleeping. Muse said there weren’t any COVID outbreaks last year, but they are worried about the delta variant being a pervasive issue. Many of the guests are vaccinated, although that isn’t required.
Muse said the number of people seen experiencing homelessness throughout the community is a fraction of the homeless population.
Outreach programs and shelters like WHO’s are a necessity for homeless people to feel a semblance of comfort. It’s a contradiction of what Leinenbach and others experience outside, he said.
Leinenbach’s depression was severe by the time he visited a WHO shelter. A volunteer offered him hot food and a shower, which felt like the most incredible thing to him at that time.
“It almost restored my faith in the universe,” Leinenbach said. “They saved my life.”
What felt the greatest to him, however, was the treatment he received from WHO staff and volunteers.
An engagement specialist spoke with Leinenbach about what resources were available to him, and a staff member provided him a walker to help him move. He ate home-cooked meals and was able to sleep knowing he was safe. He was asked how he was doing and felt like people cared about him — an unfamiliar feeling on the street.
There is a misconception that the homeless are lazy or addicts, Muse said, and any form of kindness needs to be directed toward them.
“Simply calling a guest by their name goes a long way,” she said.