SOUTH BEND, Ind. – A year ago this February, Brent King’s body was retrieved from an abandoned garage in South Bend. Unfortunately, King had frozen to death – alone. He was homeless and in and out of shelters in the South Bend region during the brutal cold of winter.
South Bend’s city shelters are first-come, first-served, and there are not enough beds to serve everyone. Emergency shelters for the remainder left outside are not opened unless the wind chill temperature hits 20 degrees below zero.
During the 2011 winter, the South Bend homeless and warming shelters were approximately 35 beds short of need. With the closing of a local 15-bed shelter, South Bend looked forward to being short by more than 50 beds for this winter and was at risk of losing another one of God’s children in the same manner as it lost Brent King.
Hearing this story deeply affected The Methodists in Ministry to South Bend cluster of churches that motivated a rapid effort to establish a weather amnesty program called Project WARM, for Weather Amnesty Relief Ministry. The cluster includes the Grace, Clay, First and Northwest United Methodist congregations.
First Church, in downtown South Bend, already served underprivileged individuals in its Upper Room program, located in the heart of the homeless neighborhood. The church building was an obvious choice for Project WARM to offer this limited service to the needs of homeless residents.
The Rev. Vickie Van Nevel, pastor of Northwest Church and North District Assistant Superintendent, says Project WARM offers weather amnesty service to the downtown homeless population. It started Dec. 1 with 20 beds. The doors open nightly around 8 p.m. with the help of two paid workers and volunteers from the participating congregations.
Guests check in and are quickly evaluated for weapons, alcohol or narcotic issues. Following a time of prayer, they settle into a sleeping area for the night. Volunteers wake guests at 7 a.m. and serve them a light snack and coffee, while guests clean their sleeping area and pack linens in a laundry bag. Guests return to the streets by 8 a.m. following a time of prayer and sharing of God’s love.
The Rev. Herb Buwalda, senior pastor of Clay Church, made arrangements for the training of new staff volunteers for Project WARM. A task force led by Deborah Mayers of First UMC runs Project WARM with oversight from the Rev. Mary Hubbard, pastor of First Church. The Rev. Lauren Hall, associate pastor at Grace Church, works with other area United Methodist congregations to gain support for the project and serves on the task force responsible for guidance and communications related to the project.
The Rev. David Schrader, cluster leader and pastor of Grace UMC, told Together the need for adequate supervision, 12 hours a night, seven days a week from December 1 until March 15 makes the $35,000 unplanned cost of this program burdensome to the four congregations involved. However, the people of the four churches feel strongly that Christ has called them to this ministry for God’s homeless people.
One of the first signs of this came in the form of $20,800 in pledges for this project from the congregations involved. The North District then provided a grant of $14,486, allowing Project WARM to open its doors Dec. 1 as the largest weather amnesty shelter in South Bend. In addition to funding, two volunteers from participating congregations are needed during check-in time each evening, to provide radical hospitality to guests, to offer prayer with them and to make sure that information related to food services, medical clinics and drug and alcohol treatment centers are available.
According to Schrader, “Project WARM is already operating at full capacity, and the volunteers are reporting back that they are being blessed in ways unexpected by working with our guests; that one really does feel the love and grace of God in the midst of this ministry, and the Matthew 25 face of Christ in those we help.”
He also says there’s a major need for socks. “We need 20 pairs a night, new or used, just so they are clean and dry. Foot infections and frostbite from wearing damp socks is a major cause of emergency room visits for the homeless.”
For more information about this project or to volunteer, visit the Project WARM Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ProjectWARMSouthBend.
“One really does feel the love and grace of God in the midst of this ministry.”
– David Schrader