By Gary Miller
What is a community?
A few years ago, faculty at the University of North Carolina, the University of California at San Francisco, and the University of Philadelphia interviewed a wide range of people about that question. They arrived at this definition: community, they discovered, is “a group of people with diverse characteristics who are linked by social ties, share common perspectives, and engage in joint action in geographical locations or settings.”
Here in the Highlands, we tend to see our community as a fairly prosperous neighborhood of professionals, business people, and academics living in the midst of young people who have come to State College as students. That view began to change in January 2011, when a homeless man, who was sleeping in a tent, died of exposure to the cold in Bellefonte. In response, Ruth Donahue, then Executive Director of Interfaith Human Services, called a meeting of the human service agencies and congregationsto address the issue. Members of four church congregations realized that there weren’t enough beds available in the existing County homeless shelters. They decided to create a shelter that would move from church to church throughout the winter. They called it “Out of the Cold: Centre County” and established it with this mission: “to provide the homeless in our community with a warm and safe overnight accommodation and nourishment within a welcoming atmosphere as a supplemental option to locally established shelters.”
Out of the Cold Co-Chair Beckie Romig reports that 14 Centre Region congregations are participating in Out of the Cold for the 2017-18 winter season. They include four churches in the Highlands: Grace Lutheran Church, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, State College Presbyterian Church, and University Baptist and Brethren Church. Their work is supported by several related Highlands-based social service organizations. Over the past six years, Out of the Cold has become an important way that Highlands neighbors engage in our community.
The current Out of the Cold season began on October 23 and will continue through May 6, 2018. Individuals who need a place to stay call the Community Help Center to register for a space. Typically, a church serves as an overnight emergency shelter for two weeks, providing a warm place to sleep and other services for up to 15 neighbors per night. On a typical evening, notes Madeline Johnson at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, “Guests check in between 9 and 10 (they make a reservation either the night before, or sometime during the day by calling a number they all have access to). They read and sign the house rules at each sign in. Dinner is served between 9 and 10. Lights go out at 11 p.m. (although most tuck in immediately after they eat). Guests are awakened at 6:15 and offered breakfast and must be out of the building by 7.”
Each night, volunteers from the congregation help with the guests. Typically, parishioners from the hosting church provide one volunteer for every five guests, along with a host and others who cook and serve dinner and breakfast. All volunteers are trained, with each church offering multiple training opportunities to accommodate schedules. Out of the Cold also has two site managers who visit each site regularly.
Out of the Cold complements another Highlands-based shelter—Centre House—operated by Housing Transitions, Inc. Centre House provides 24X7 shelter and food to clients who are experiencing homelessness or in crisis, but also guidance to reach a more stable housing future. During the coldest part of the winter, Housing Transitions works with Out of the Cold to address unmet needs. In a 2014 Centre County Gazette article, Housing Transitions Executive Director Ron Quinn described Out of the Cold as “a great service to the community.” Madeline Johnson agrees: “I think just the fact that SO many churches in our area have stepped up to participate in this program shows what a caring community we are.”
Another related organization is Hearts for the Homeless located on South Fraser Street. They provide daytime housing for the homeless as well as other services. Their mission is “to protect the vulnerable in our community and provide the means to overcome homelessness.”
Out of the Cold and these other service organizations for the homeless welcome volunteers and support for basic necessities, from personal hygiene items to clothing. There are many ways neighbors can participate in this special part of the Highlands community.
Gary Miller is a member of the “Hearts in the Highlands” editorial board.