An organization that provides a warm place for the unsheltered to sleep during the coldest months had to do the unthinkable earlier this week: they had to turn away homeless people because they didn’t have enough staff to take everyone in.
Brian Edwards, the acting executive director for Waynesboro Area Refuge Ministry, wrote this week on Facebook: “We have had to turn a few of our homeless neighbors away on these rainy, cold nights because we are unable to have more than 20 guests at one site in the City of Waynesboro. We do not have the staff to have an overflow shelter.
“Turning away unsheltered neighbors tonight was incredibly difficult,” Edwards wrote. “Prayers they stay safe, dry and alive.”
Shutting down the overflow location was through no fault of WARM. Unfortunately, like many businesses and retail locations, a shelter manager had the flu and couldn’t work as a result.
The flu, RSV and COVID have left many businesses short-handed – and WARM is no exception. Edwards said despite having the flu shot this year, he had the flu himself earlier in the week.
On most nights, WARM has space for 35 homeless people at their shelters, which rotate between churches in Waynesboro and Augusta County and a location at Augusta Expo.
In Waynesboro, WARM operates a 20-person primary shelter and a 15-person overflow shelter. Due to fire codes and city regulations, WARM isn’t able to house everyone under one roof. However, it does bring everyone together for a meal and fellowship before moving some of the unsheltered to the second location.
In Augusta County, regulations are different. WARM is able to house 35 people at one location, eliminating the need for an overflow shelter and requiring less staff to keep the doors open.
‘Praying they get through the night OK’
With staff out due to the flu, the second overflow shelter in Waynesboro was not available this week, in what Edwards called “a perfect storm.” The monitor for the overflow shelter was needed at the main shelter due to the stricter regulations in Waynesboro, and the second shelter had to be shut down.
Edwards was on hand at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, the cold weather shelter site for the week, when a van with 15 unsheltered people arrived for the night. Two other people were also already checked in at the shelter. The van driver gave Edwards the heartbreaking news that there were five people waiting for the van driver to return to bring them to the shelter for the night.
Edwards said when this happens, the protocol is to prioritize seniors and women to get the remaining beds. He said that he personally drove over to the pickup location to deliver the news. He asked for volunteers willing to give up a bed for others.
He said that one of them said, “I’ll give up my bed for the night.” Another man said, “it’s not that bad out here tonight. I can stay outside.”
“I gave him a big hug and said, hey, you’re going to have dinner with us, and then I’ll take you wherever you need to go in the city,” Edwards said.
“This should not happen. I should be able to give these folks a bed tonight. And we couldn’t. And I think, in your head, you’re hoping and praying they get through the night OK.”
More people needed to keep doors open
At the present time, WARM has cold-weather shelters set up every week through Easter – with about 60 percent in Waynesboro, where regulations are tougher, and 40 percent in Augusta County, where it’s a little easier for the organization to keep the shelter open.
The key is to have more cold weather shelter managers trained and ready to work the 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift so this doesn’t happen again.
“The great thing about our cold weather shelter monitors is that they really enjoy working with this population,” Edwards said.
In the meantime, good Samaritans have stepped up and offered to pay to put the unsheltered in hotels when there aren’t enough beds at shelters or the overflow shelter is closed. While that does get the unsheltered people off the streets and out of the cold, it’s not the ideal solution, Edwards said.
“WARM’s mission is not only to provide shelter, but to also provide food, a loving atmosphere and some structure,” Edwards said. “And when they come into our site, they’re not able to drink or to bring weapons, or smoke except for designated times. So even when they are sheltered for the evening, they are kind of left to their own devices (at the hotels).”
Edwards said the rules are meant to keep them safe, to follow good practices, and to be responsible.
While there are other places that can house the homeless in the region, some of the unsheltered have been banned from these places for a violation of rules.
“We’re going to try our best not to turn anyone away,” Edwards said. “Or at least work with other individuals to try to keep them safe. Because I don’t want anyone who wants help to not have a place to stay and get a warm meal.”
More staffing would give WARM more flexibility when illness or other issues affect employees, he said. It also allows one person to work on intakes, and another person to make sure their guests have what they need as far as sheets or blankets, or medications when they are required.
The other solution, he hopes, is that Waynesboro can take another look at the regulations related to how many people are allowed at one location and/or how many staff members are required to keep a location open.
He said the organization is having conversations with city officials and the fire marshal now. Edwards said he believes that they are making headway – and the city is going to be their ally in this.
“We’re a faithful bunch,” Edwards said. “We’ll get there.”
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