The first winter that Out of the Cold: Centre County opened, it involved four congregations with volunteers who were sent home on nights when the homeless shelter was empty.
With the program in its fourth year, it has grown in almost every aspect. Pastor Monica Ouellette, of St. John’s United Church of Christ in Boalsburg, is president of the board of directors for Out of the Cold: Centre County as well as the volunteer coordinator. She spoke recently about the program, which runs this year through May 3.
Q: When did Out of the Cold form and why?
A: In January 2011, a man froze to death in Bellefonte, so a meeting was called of all the churches that were interested. What came out of that meeting was a group of us who decided that what we needed was a homeless shelter that rotates between the churches. ... It became quite clear that we had a problem because there aren’t enough beds in the shelters already in Centre County.
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Q: How does it work?
A: If somebody calls into the Community Help Center and says, ‘I don’t have a place to stay tonight,’ (the center does) an intake process, and if they qualify — and just about everybody qualifies — then they are put on a list for Out of the Cold. They have to renew that every single night. For us, it means the Community Help Center always knows who’s sleeping at the site that night. It also means if there are services in the community that the guests need, Community Help Center sends them to the people they need to speak with. .
Q: What are the biggest challenges to running a program like this?
A: Funds. When we work with the congregations that are further out, we need to use taxis; we also need to give bus tokens to guests. We have lost six cots that have broken already this season — cots are about $90 a piece for us to replace. We also hired a part-time site manager who gets paid to be at the site a minimum of once a week and goes in if there’s some kind of problem with the guests.
Q: How do you ensure that the people who need this program are aware of it?
A: A lot of them go through Community Help Center anyway for other services, so that is one way. And then there are human service agencies that recommend them, and churches.
Q: How has the program grown since it was formed?
A: We have grown in the number of congregations; we started with four congregations the first year and we’re up to 12 this year. ... It has also grown in the number of volunteers. It’s grown in the number of guests we serve. The first year there were a lot of nights that we sent volunteers home because there were no guests — that doesn’t happen anymore. We are running nine to 15 guests every night and have been since the beginning of the season (which started in October). Fifteen is the max number that we can serve in one night.
Q: What is an average night like at an Out of the Cold shelter?
A: Guests are allowed to arrive between 9 and 10 p.m. They come in, we usually feed them a hot meal. ... At 11 p.m., lights are out. The alarm clock goes off between 6 and 6:15,and we start waking people up. They have to be out of the congregation buildings by 7 a.m., because a lot of the congregations have programs going on during the day.
Q: What can community members do to help?
A: Financial contributions are a big help. Groups that want to provide a hot meal are always helpful. We need bus tokens. ... Socks are needed; we have been collecting socks and we give out a lot of socks to the guests.
Q: Where do you hope to see this program in five years?
A: The dream in five years is to have a permanent site, which has a day center as well as an overnight shelter. We just don’t have enough (homeless shelters) in the community. As well run as they are, they’re wonderful but the beds that they have it’s not enough. Homelessness is growing in the United States and this area is no different.