As temperatures plummeted this past week to lows not seen in decades, donors and volunteers throughout the Ozarks pitched in to make sure everyone who sought shelter had a warm place to sleep.
There are currently seven crisis cold weather shelters sites throughout Springfield, compared to previous years when only East Sunshine Church of Christ and Grace United Methodist Church opened up on nights when the temperature dipped below freezing.
Due to COVID-19, those two existing shelters have been operating at limited capacity. Since late December, a handful of churches came forward to offer up shelter space for homeless people.
As the winter dragged on, those crisis cold weather shelters have been inching closer and closer to capacity.
Recent frigid temperatures have been driving even the most service-resistant homeless people in from their camps, explained Pastor Christie Love with the Connecting Grounds, a church that does street outreach throughout the winter.
“We are just seeing a lot of frostbite, a lot of symptoms of hypothermia at various stages,” Love said. “There’s a lot of really, really vulnerable people out there.”
Many chronically homeless people who haven’t sought shelter in four or five years started reaching out late last week, Love said.
“We kept watching the forecast change and kept watching it get more and more dire. We got really concerned and really started trying to pray and figure out what we could do,” Love said. “We just had this crazy idea — what would happen if we just asked people to help sponsor hotel rooms?”
More than $50,000 has been donated
Love said she put that request on the church’s volunteer Facebook page last Thursday. Since that time, a little more than $50,000 has been donated and immediately spent on hotel rooms in Springfield, Strafford and Lebanon. The rooms have provided shelter during the cold snap for a total of 282 individuals (plus 19 dogs and two cats).
“We emptied out most of our camps. We were able to get a lot of people out of their cars,” Love said. “I just believe in the compassion of our community. We’ve seen it time and time again over the last year. When we ask and we share a need, there are so many people that have rallied around our vulnerable neighbors.”
The solution is not permanent, Love said. The Connecting Grounds was able to pay for the hotel rooms through Friday, when temperatures are expected to hit the low 30s.
With so many folks in motel rooms, Connecting Grounds volunteers have been delivering hot meals plus snack bags to the rooms every evening.
Vicki and Lane Walden were among the volunteers who showed up Tuesday evening to deliver meals. Vicki said she and her husband volunteered last week to spend the night at the crisis cold weather shelter at Brentwood Christian Church.
Brentwood’s shelter, which came online Feb. 1, is the first in Springfield to welcome couples and pets. By all accounts, not being able to access a cold weather shelter with their spouse or pet is a common reason homeless people choose to “tough out” dangerously cold weather.
“It was amazing,” Vicki Walden said of their shift at Brentwood’s shelter. “People were so grateful to have a warm place.”
As the Waldens went door-to-door delivering meals at a motel in east Springfield on that bitter cold night, Vicki said she felt lucky to have the opportunity to serve.
“The Connecting Grounds is one of the most amazing organizations,” she said. “They do the work. Every day you can go there and see it. And it feels like a miracle. I’m very blessed to be in the middle of this miracle.”
Campers and community building put to use
In addition to the nearly 300 people put in hotels this past week by the Connecting Grounds initiative, two more crisis cold weather shelter spaces have opened thanks to the Gathering Tree.
The Gathering Tree is the nonprofit that operates Eden Village I and II, two tiny home communities in Springfield for disabled and chronically homeless people.
The Gathering Tree’s new Revive 66 Campground recently opened to serve as crisis cold weather shelter. The campground has tiny, solar-powered teardrop campers that can be rented overnight for $10. On nights Springfield’s cold weather shelters are in operation, homeless people are given vouchers from Community Partnership of the Ozarks to cover the $10 charge.
The campground has a bathroom and laundry trailer on the site at 3839 W. Chestnut Expressway, as well as a tornado shelter.
There are currently only five teardrop trailers at the campground, but Gathering Tree COO Nate Schlueter said they’ve been full every night with individuals, couples, and individuals with pets. The teardrop trailers’ interior are completely wipe-down surfaces that can be cleaned daily.
There are 27 more trailers either under construction or completed, but waiting to be delivered. Schlueter said the recent snowy weather has made delivering the light-weight trailers impossible.
Under normal conditions, the trailers will be solar-powered. But when the temperature dropped to 20 degrees and colder, Schlueter said, they had to wire in electricity.
“When it goes below 20 degrees, the capacity for those (solar) batteries to pump enough heat — nothing works basically,” he said. “So they all have heat sources that are able to keep them warm. We are having a ton of repeat campers that have spent five or six nights in a row with us, so it’s warm.”
In addition to the campground serving as a crisis cold weather shelter, the community center at Eden Village I is now being used as a shelter with capacity for 25 people.
After learning about the need for more crisis cold weather shelter space at the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness meeting last week, Schlueter said he spoke with staff and residents at Eden Village I about opening up the community building as a shelter space.
Not long after the decision was made, Eden Village residents began signing up to help fill volunteer slots.
“To me, they are the ideal people to run a cold weather shelter because they’ve taken advantage of those services in the past,” Schlueter said. “They’ve had a good experience meeting people they know that are still on the streets, seeing them again and interacting — being the host instead of the recipient.”
“That is kind of what we’ve said all along: Once people get settled, they will be able to care for the world all around them,” he added. “They contribute and give back.”
Formerly homeless volunteers helped set rules
Since the residents are all formerly homeless themselves, Schlueter said, they were given an opportunity to change or create rules they saw as more accommodating to the population.
They changed how late folks could go outside for a final smoke, for example. The most important of their rules: Be kind.
“This is the Eden Village Community Center. If the residents are going to volunteer, we let them have a say what we should have rules about,” Schlueter said. “The volunteers at Eden Village, we’ve talked about this: These are our guests for the night. We want to treat them like our guests. We don’t want to run out of coffee. We don’t want to run out of snacks. We want this to be an amazing experience while they are in our community center.”
The crisis cold weather shelter at Eden Village is big enough for 25 cots. According to Schlueter, it’s been full or at capacity since opening Friday. Like Brentwood Christian Church’s, the Eden Village shelter is open to couples and those with pets.
When the News-Leader arrived Tuesday evening, Eden Village resident Mirenda Barrows was busy making coffee and laying out snacks. She had less than an hour before a bus full of homeless people would be arriving, and Barrows said she wanted everything ready for them.
Barrows had been homeless off and on since she aged out of the foster care system at 18. She moved into a tiny home at Eden Village in October of 2019.
“I’m loving it here,” she said. “I know most of my neighbors. We know each other. We’ve been through the roughest parts of our lives — being homeless — together. We have a mutual understanding of where we are coming from.”
Barrows has been volunteering for the 7-10:30 p.m. shift at the cold weather shelter. Barrows said she used to stay at Safe to Sleep, a year-round overnight shelter for homeless women. She understands what it’s like trying to sleep on a cot surrounded by several people.
“We want everybody to feel safe and feel comfortable, because it is close quarters,” Barrows said. “I try to make sure everyone is actually getting rest because they have to go back out in it tomorrow and carry their stuff around. You want a good night’s rest for that. You want to be able to take a shower and relax for the night and not worry about what the temperature is.”
Amanda Stadler, Continuum of Care Coordinator for Community Partnership of the Ozarks and the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness, said with the recent expansion sites at Eden Village and the Revive 66 Campground, there are currently 145 crisis cold weather shelter beds in Springfield.
Though the shelters have been running close to capacity in recent weeks, Stadler said no one has been turned away yet.
“That is obviously what everyone is most focused on, making sure that everyone has a place to stay,” she said. “All of the shelters are in very regular communication about who has space.”
Where are the cold weather shelter sites?
Current crisis cold weather shelter sites include East Sunshine Church of Christ (for men), Grace United Methodist Church (for women), the First Unitarian Universalist (for men), Salvation Army’s Harbor House (for men), Brentwood Christian Church (for men, women and pets), Eden Village Community Center (for men, women and pets), and the Revive 66 Campground (for men, women, and pets).
Stadler thanked those agencies and churches for offering their spaces to serve as shelters, the volunteers who stay over night, the volunteers who are transporting pets and laundry, City Utilities for providing transportation and the Veterans Coming Home daytime drop-in center for extending hours throughout the winter and being a pick-up and drop-off spot for the shelters.
Need help? Want to help?
If you are interested in volunteering at or donating to a cold-weather shelter, visit www.cpozarks.org/coldweather.
The Connecting Grounds Outreach Team goes out every night when it’s 40 degrees or colder. They bring hand warmers, clothes, blankets and food to people who are sleeping on the streets, in camps and in vehicles. They can also help get someone to a crisis cold weather shelter on nights the shelters are operating. If you need help or see someone who needs help, call the team at 417-849-0453.