Take ten Anchorage churches, add hundreds of volunteers, fortify with the work of the Municipality, AWAIC and Alaska 2-1-1, and what do you get?
As in zero winter nights that a family experiencing homelessness had to spend unsheltered.
For 10 years running, from the first of October to the middle of May, the churches and their partners have provided Anchorage families with Emergency Cold Weather Shelter, opening their hearts and doors to homeless families when the city’s other shelters are full.
That’s why we’ve been able to say no child need sleep out in the cold during the Anchorage winter. That doesn’t mean a family never spends a cold night here. It does mean Anchorage has enough emergency shelter for families with children through our coldest months.
Numbers tell the tale of need:
Emergency Cold Weather Shelter
2010 – May, 2019, by the numbers
1,269 nights in operation
10,686 bed nights
Hundreds of volunteers
That need is still with us this season. Since October, the churches kept 18 families (27 adults, 32 children) out of the cold.
No matter which of the 10 churches open their doors on any given night, families can count on a warm welcome, safety, snacks and a chance to snuggle in with their children. They also can count on respite from the stress of facing another day homeless, trying to juggle living out of a car or worse, getting kids to school, trying to keep or find a job and reassure the kids that yes, we’ll be all right, even if they’re not sure how or when. This is where the churches take up their traditional role as sanctuaries. Parents who might understandably dread the dawn because it means another day with no place to call home at least have a safe space to lay the burden down.
Churches aren’t doing this alone. Partners include United Way of Anchorage, which launched the program up along with several churches and the Municipality a decade ago. It also works with Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis (AWAIC), United Way’s Alaska 2-1-1 help line, and year-around shelters Clare and McKinnell houses, plus donors like Key Bank Foundation, which provides funds for needed transportation.
When families sign in at a church, they receive referrals to the Coordinated Entry system if they aren’t already registered. Coordinated Entry, managed by the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, refers people to housing according to vulnerability and available services, and streamlines the process. Thus emergency shelter is both a destination for tonight’s need and a springboard toward tomorrow’s goal for stable, permanent housing. As Danna Larson at First Presbyterian said, “the hope is that cold weather shelter is a step on a journey home.“
Emergency Cold Weather Shelter is an example of why we say change doesn’t happen alone. Any individual can practice the virtues exemplified in this work; the kindness, patience and simple love of neighbor that makes a steady light. And that’s good. Even better is when we coordinate the better angels of our natures and multiply the effect. Referral at 2-1-1, a ride to church, and a volunteer to lay down clean sleeping pads and pillows create a welcoming place that families under stress can rely on, night after night.
The lesson here runs true across nonprofits, government agencies, and denominations of faith. By ourselves, we limit the reach of the good that we can achieve. But when we frame care that responds to each family by name in smart, effective collaboration, we help Sunday’s sermon cover every day of the week.