Program Gears Up For Another Year
By Jeff Mellott
HARRISONBURG - A 15-week program that provided shelter to the homeless through a network of community churches provided 68 people with a place to go during the winter months, according to the organization that provided the service.
Making the Harrisonburg And Rockingham Thermal Shelter program possible were 672 people who volunteered 4,710 hours, according to statistics provided by Brooke Rodgers, executive director of HARTS.
While the stated goal of the program was to provide a shelter for the homeless, HARTS' president, the Rev. Jeff Butcher, said recently that the effort also provided a means for members of the area's faith community to strengthen their bonds with each other and their individual faith.
HARTS, which modeled the homeless shelter programs in other communities, including Charlottesville, created a network of 13 shelters and six partner churches to provide the service to the homeless.
The churches offered a roof and volunteers from mid-December through the end of March. The effort created 105 consecutive nights where the homeless could find dinner and breakfast, according to HARTS' report.
"It went amazingly well," Butcher said. "It was definitely an act of faith. We could have used another year to plan. But it all worked out. It all came together."
Meeting last summer, members of the community's interfaith council considered what they could do to meet the needs of the homeless.
The preference was and remains for a single central shelter, said Ann Held, who is HARTS' vice president.
Looking for alternatives, community leaders created a plan for a network of churches that would each host the homeless for one week during the winter.
HARTS secured a $15,000 grant from the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority and $30,000 from City Council.
The $45,000 was about half of what HARTS officials said at the time was necessary for the shelter program.
By the time the program ended, HARTS collected another $10,000 in donations and $153,862 from in-kind contributions. The United Way also provided $2,819 to supplement federal, state and local grants.
The contributions brought the program's budget to more than $208,000, according to HARTS Executive Director Brooke Rodgers.
HARTS' board of directors is expected to meet next week and elect new officers and prepare for next winter.
The program, according to Held, helped humanize the homeless issue.
"These are not faceless people," Held said. "They are individuals who are down on their luck and needed, not a handout, but a compassionate hand to lift them up."
Harrisonburg and Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Michael Wong said the program's results opened his eyes to the number of working poor who need help.
"That surprised me," he said.
Wong said the authority's investment in HARTS is part of the agency's effort to provide housing.
"We tried not to make it a government program," he said. "It was a community response."
Wong and others said the homeless were not the only ones affected by the program.
Held noted that the Islamic Association of Harrisonburg stepped in to provide a shelter during the Christian holy periods of Christmas and Easter.
Butcher said it was "joyous" to see everyone work together and the impact the program had on the volunteers.
"People individually have gained confidence that they can speak with and engage with people that are homeless," Butcher said. "They were actually living out their faith."