Bundled into my toasty warm clothing, I shiver while looking at the outside temperature gauge registering a frigid 29 degrees. Can you imagine having to brave these freezing temperatures with only one set of clothes? Likely the same clothes that were also worn during the warm days of summer? It can and does happen every night right here in our own community, to those who find themselves homeless and without a safe and warm place to turn in at night. These women and children have fallen through the cracks. It’s this group that is the most difficult to find shelter for.

Fortunately, there are those among us who are quietly opening their hearts and facilities to our fellow human beings who would otherwise suffer or even die from exposure.

When the Lighthouse Mission, one of our local homeless shelters found themselves full, they reached out to collaborate with two local churches in an effort to provide emergency cold weather shelters. The respective pastors, Rick Qualls of the Fountain Community Church and Chris Eltrich of Lettered Streets Covenant Church, have teamed up to provide overnight, safe, warm places for our most vulnerable to eat and sleep during the ongoing freezing temperatures.

Here volunteers provide a warm meal and a safe space to sleep. Photo credit: Chris Eltrich.

Since the two churches operate out of the same space, they decided to turn to their members to help the women and children by providing a hot and comforting meal and helping them get settled in for a safe and warm night’s slumber. Soon, other churches including St. Brendan’s Anglican, First Presbyterian, Bellingham Covenant and North side Community Church joined these two pastors’ efforts. Together they now serve 25 women and children nightly from 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. The homeless population currently stands at 800+. On its own, it’s a sobering figure, but when taken 25 at a time, it’s possible to make a life changing impact.

There are 127 volunteers from these six churches but there is still a need for more help. All volunteers must go through a background check and take a one and a half hour orientation. If you’ve ever wondered if you alone can make a difference in this world, be assured you can and now is your chance. You are needed! Both Pastor Rick and Pastor Chris expressed to me that extending a helping hand to these folks in need has made them feel more comfortable in their community. By serving, they have personally gained and been served.

Both Pastor Rick, a soft spoken father and grandfather, and Pastor Chris, a young, quietly enthusiastic father of three youngsters, impressed me with their action based ministry efforts and obvious caring natures. Taking care of the homeless in situations that could mean life or death is action based and deeply needed.

The churches work to connect those in need with long term resources. Photo credit: Chris Eltrich.

The pastors told me stories of some of the women who sought refuge this season. One, a young woman, said she was pregnant. On her third night at the shelter she went into labor and was taken to the hospital where she gave birth. This child could have been born outside in freezing temperatures.  Another resident, a hard boiled 71 year old, was living in her van, suffering from a multitude of health issues including cancer. She had raised her six children as a single mom and was on her way to Alaska but felt that if not for being taken in at the church’s shelter, she might well have died from exposure while camping out in her van. She was extremely grateful for being taken in and is convinced she could have died alone without anyone knowing had the shelters not been available to her.

Both pastors explained that the women and children coming in for overnight, emergency services are then given the opportunity to connect with other community services, such as medical care and longer term housing. For some, this is their only contact with such opportunities.

Both men are making a concerted effort to ensure that the shelter doesn’t negatively impact the neighborhoods surrounding their churches. They understand that it’s important that their neighbors feel safe. So quietly, they go about the business of helping those that life has not been kind to. This is why they’ve primarily asked their parishioners to provide volunteer services rather than advertise for assistance.

This simple room means a warm night’s sleep to those who would have been out in the cold. Photo credit: Chris Eltrich.

But, as you might imagine, it takes a lot of time and effort to coordinate all these volunteers, and in order to help keep their volunteers able to keep on keeping on, it’s helpful to have assistance. The City of Bellingham is covering the cost to pay for two helpers to do all the scheduling and coordination of volunteers.

At the moment, they have supplies like laundry soap and toiletries but are always grateful when community members can help contribute to food costs. If you’d like to help out these churches, please contact Pastor Chris Eltrich at Lettered Streets Covenant Church or Pastor Rick Qualls at Fountain Community Church.

For volunteering opportunities contact Gavriele at gavrielecws@yahoo.com


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