Three years ago, Lawson Snipes was one of 125 homeless people living in Davis. During cold, rainy and windy winter nights, Snipes and up to a dozen other individuals would huddle inside “the cave,“ – an island of dry land under the overhang between two buildings at Davis Community Church.
“Davis has been a community that has been good to me,” Snipes said. “It’s a community where there is no reason for anybody to be homeless.… Nobody wants to be homeless in the wintertime.“
Snipes, no longer homeless, now lives happily in a one-bedroom apartment with his cat. But for the other men and women in Davis who need a dry, warm place to sleep, the Interfaith Rotating Winter Shelter (IRWS) helps makes the winter nights a bit more comfortable.
The shelter, which began its second year of operation last Sunday, is a collaboration between nine different faith communities within Davis to house the city’s homeless during the winter months. On a week-to-week basis, churches alternate in offering their facilities to the program.
Each day the shelter begins its activities at 5:30 p.m. with intake procedures, which takes place at the Davis Friends Meeting house, located at 345 L St. downtown. There, those seeking shelter meet with a volunteer, who creates a file on the guest, conducts a quick behavioral assessment and gathers relevant personal information. An hour later, those individuals are transported to a local church, where they are housed for the night.
“When they walk in, we provide them with sleeping bags and mats – each person gets their own for the entire season – and a hot dinner,” said Reverend Bill Habicht, an associate pastor at Davis Community Church and co-chair of the program.
Student interns and volunteers work together to staff intake, purchase food and supplies, prepare meals and provide nightly supervision. In addition, volunteers and interns eat with their guests and later they often play games, watch movies and talk. Lights are out by 10 p.m., and after a night’s rest guests are transported back to downtown the next day by 6:30 a.m.
Last year, IRWS provided 1,229 hot evening meals to 81 different homeless guests from December to February, averaging about a dozen guests a night, according to their 2007-2008 Annual Report.
The intern and volunteer experience
As one of seven interns employed by IRWS last year, Shannon Steele, a third year human development major, worked intake twice a week.
“Before, I never knew any homeless people personally. It’s easier to judge people when you don’t know them. People think they are violent, or hopped up on drugs, and that was not the case. They were all nice people,” she said. “Afterwards, it was like you were seeing friends you already knew, not just guests that needed housing.“
Steele’s response reflects the lessons learned by many interns and volunteers, whose experiences helped to tear down what Reverend Habicht said is the barrier between the housed and the unhoused: the stigma of homelessness that makes them the “untouchables of society.“
Snipes said the best way to foster an attitude of understanding is through volunteering.
“Spend some time at the shelter and get to know us. I want the students and the people at large to get to know us. People will realize Davis has a better class of bums,” he said.
Helping the homeless help themselves
For a homeless person, it is difficult to get a job without an address, a telephone number, or any other symbol of financial stability. According to a July 2008 New York Times article, 82 percent of the homeless population is in a temporary state. Those who want to better themselves face a vicious cycle: homelessness means unemployment, and unemployment means homelessness. Meanwhile, one must face the daily challenge of looking for a place to eat, a place to stay clean and a place to sleep.
IRWS offers a chance for a homeless person to save up funds during the winter season for future investments, like an apartment lease.
“[Sheltering] is only one piece of the puzzle. It does protect them and put a roof over their head, but more importantly, it gives them an environment you can work up in,” Steele said.
“The beauty of the shelter,” added Snipes, “is that you can work and save money. For somebody who is trying to better themselves; the interfaith winter shelter is an opportunity.“
Reflections from experience
After a decade’s worth of experience working with the homeless, Reverend Habicht is proud of IRWS’s contribution to the community. This year, the shelter has opened earlier in the season, and is planning on using a larger budget to buy warmer, higher quality sleeping bags and other supplies for guests. But to Habicht, the best forecast for the future is the attitudes of the younger students who interned and volunteered at the shelter.
“The generation in college right now is the generation of change. Instead of me, they think of us,” he said. “Their approach to society is not just to make money, but to make their community and country and world a better place – they want to make a difference in the world.“
The IRWS is currently looking for interns and volunteers to staff operations this season. Internship includes a $250 dollar stipend, as well as optional unit-hours and transcript notation. Please contact Natasha Foo Kune at Natasha@irwsd.org for more information. Donations to IRWS can be sent to P.O. Box 73256, Davis, California 95616.
ANDRE LEE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.