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Shelter from the storm: Area churches take in homeless during winter months

“Benny” turns in early to sleep
“Benny” turns in early to sleep on a cot at First Presbyterian Church. The church recently served as a shelter for the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter program, which runs through March. Rich Cooley/Daily

Audio Slide Show

Slide Show Audio Slide Show: Area churches provide shelter

By Ben Orcutt -- borcutt@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- A homeless, unemployed electrician, Raymond Brackett makes no bones about what the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter program means to him.

"Dead. I'd be dead," the 48-year-old said as he rested on a cot at First Presbyterian Church in Winchester on a recent night.

"I'd [have] froze to death because I've been through chemotherapy, and I can't stand the cold. I'd be dead, no questions asked."

"I'm here because I need a place," said "Joker" Bean, 53, another participant in the WATTS program. "Where would I be? Out there walking around in the dark."

Calling his plight tough if it weren't for the WATTS program is an understatement.

"Be tough? Hell, it's tough now because the state done took my tent, all my duffel bags, all my clothes, I mean sleeping bags. I ain't got nothing," Bean remarked. "Wouldn't be for this WATTS program, I'd be out there walking around in the dark."

Brackett, Bean and other homeless men and women like them take shelter in 12 area churches participating in the nonprofit program, which runs from Dec. 13 to March 7 and is in its second year.

The churches can accommodate up to 35 guests, who have to be at least 18. The shelters open at 7 p.m. and serve dinner at 7:30 p.m., and then breakfast in the morning before guests leave at 7 a.m. Volunteers from Valley Health are available to check the guests for medical problems and can make referrals if necessary to the free clinic.

The churches take in a majority of men, but there are also women who take advantage of the WATTS program, like Cassidy Goode, 23, of Winchester.

Goode said the program is a godsend, and if it didn't exist, she would probably be living in a tent. She said the best thing about the program is, "that everybody can relate to everybody. Everybody can get along for the most part. Nobody's judging."

Flyers are posted with CCAP -- the Congregational Community Action Project -- and area soup kitchens to let the homeless know which churches will host the WATTS program, according to Shannon Brannon, lead volunteer for the week that First Presbyterian Church was the host church.

Guests are first-come, first-served, with those spending the night given cards for priority for the next night.

During the day, the homeless are on their own, she said.

"Some work," Brannon said. "Some don't, so a lot of times they just go to places where they know they can get out of the weather for a while and a lot of times they go to the library. Sometimes they go to different places that they know that are open."

After checking in with a night manager when they come to the shelters at 7 p.m., they can enjoy a snack before dinner. There are games for them to play, and at First Presbyterian, a TV to watch. Some clothing is made available, as well as hygiene products. At First Presbyterian, the homeless could take up to three showers during the week.

"Usually after dinner a lot of times some of them will go to bed because they've been outside most of the day, and it's a long day, so they're tired," Brannon said.

Most of the time the guests are well-behaved, Brannon said, adding that they are assigned smoke breaks, and illegal drugs and alcohol are not allowed.

Overall, the WATTS program has been a success, said David Witt, 48, the pastor of Opequon Presbyterian Church and president of the board of directors of WATTS.
"Oh most definitely, yes, a great success in a lot of ways," he said. "One, we were obviously able to build a trust level with our guests because last year we went [from the] first night from six guests to 28. We reached capacity in week seven last year. Last year our average was 16 guests a night for the whole 10 weeks. This year we're running probably [an] average of 27, 28 guests per night."

"Last year we had a capacity of 28 so we raised it to 35, but the limitation is a lot of our facilities we really can't accommodate more than 35 as far as the size goes and staffing," Witt said. "Yes, the homeless need is much greater in the community. They're a lot of folks out there. But of course, the Salvation Army and the men's rescue mission do this all year round."

Witt said a way to try to house homeless families is being studied.

"We cannot do that," he said. "We only have individuals who are 18 and over. The whole area of housing families is a great need, and we've wrestled with that, but we have not come up [with] a solution."

"The other thing I would mention as a great success is just pulling the community together," he said. "We've had so much support. It is just unreal. From the churches, from civic organizations, just everybody working together. In our own church here at Opequon, we had over 70 volunteers ... for our week of hosting and that's duplicated every week in all of the churches. It's pretty amazing how many people."

And the homeless are grateful, Witt said.

"They're very gracious and very appreciative," he said. "There's no doubt about that. And we've had some people who have had some serious health problems, and so yeah, we believe we're keeping them alive. We're a last-resort almost shelter for a lot of folks. I mean a lot of folks would prefer to still be on their own, but they come to us because the elements are so cruel, and we welcome them ... and they feel nurtured within our facilities. I mean people have been very good."

"I just think that nobody should have to be homeless, and the ones that are in the situations that they are need the support," Brannon said. "And when they come here over the weeks you'll see that sometimes it's like a little bit of a family unit. And even though they're only with each church for a week, they get to know us, and we get to know them, and they get a little bit of a family unit when they're here."

Others agree.

Ariel Place, a paid night manager for the program, said the most rewarding part of working with the homeless is, "Getting to know them. Like we actually become friends some of us. ... They're actually really cool guys."

Host churches
• Dec. 13-20: Welltown U M Church & Friends
• Dec. 20-27: Stephens City United Methodist Church
• Dec. 27-Jan. 3: Sunnyside
Presbyterian Church
• Jan. 3-10: Opequon Presbyterian Church
• Jan. 10-17: First Presbyterian Church
• Jan. 17-24: Grace Lutheran Church
• Jan. 24-31: First United Methodist Church
• Jan. 31-Feb. 7: Braddock Street
United Methodist Church
• Feb. 7-14: Christ Episcopal Church
• Feb. 14-21: First Baptist Church
• Feb. 21-28: Market Street United Methodist Church
• Feb. 28-March 7: Bethel Lutheran Church
For more information, call 327-5431. Go to help4watts@gmail.com to
learn about volunteering.


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