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CURRENT ISSUE:  January 9, 2006VOL. 44, NO. 1Oakland, CA

Parishes join effort to provide
winter shelter for homeless families

Needed: two good-hearted retired social workers who would like to volunteer a few hours of their time during the week as case managers for 12 homeless adults and their 13 children staying at the Winter Nights shelter program in Contra Costa County.

The homeless project, a November-to-May arrangement, provides nighttime shelter program for families with children and elders capable of self-care. Operated by the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County, the program is supported by more than 95 congregations and religious organizations in the area.

But there is a large glitch in the current arrangement—the lack of a one-stop permanent site. Instead, Winter Nights is a rotating shelter not unlike a European gypsy or Sufi desert caravan of old, with folks moving from community to community, from Orinda, to Walnut Creek, to Lafayette, to Pleasanton to Concord to Pittsburg, from one volunteer host church or synagogue to another.

Every seven or 14 days, families must pack up their air mattresses and other belongings and move to another location.

On designated Monday moving days, Bob Russell, a volunteer with Winter Nights, brings his Ryder truck and a collection of friends to the shelter location of the week to help with the transfer. Despite the good heartedness and generosity of volunteers like Russell, the routine is still “extremely unsettling and disruptive for people, especially the kids,” noted Gwen Watson, pro-bono overall coordinator for Winter Nights.

Watson’s group came close to having a stable location two years ago at a vacant Orinda library. But strident community opposition forced the group to withdraw its application. Opponents of the shelter verbally attacked City Manager Bill Lindsay and the City Council, saying the Interfaith Council and city officials tried to establish a homeless shelter without calling for sufficient community participation in the decision.

So Winter Nights turned to its religious constituents for help in setting up the rotating shelter model. It began in November 2004. Seven Catholic parishes and organizations are among the 22 hosts participating in the program. They are: St. Vincent de Paul Society in Pittsburg, St. Stephen in Walnut Creek, St. Bonaventure and St. Francis of Assisi in Concord, Christ the King in Pleasant Hill, St. Perpetua in Lafayette, and the diocesan Youth Retreat Center in Lafayette.

This winter, the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Pittsburg created a Daytime Oasis, a warm safe place for the homeless families to spend the day. There are toys and books for pre-school children, showers, a lunchroom, a place for school children to start their homework, a phone for parents who are job searching, and access to a nearby laundromat. It is open each day from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Last year, unemployed families had to hang out at the mall, a laundromat or library during daytime hours when the Winter Nights Shelter was closed.

Watson said many of the parents are employed, but housing is still inaccessible for them. They are among the working poor who earn $10 to $12 an hour in a county where it takes $27 an hour in pay for a family to afford a two bedroom apartment. Section Eight vouchers would solve the problem, but there are already 5,000 people in Contra Costa County on a waiting list, Watson said.

To complicate matters for shelter residents, transportation costs for old gas guzzling cars or for public transportation eat into salaries that could be going for rent, said Watson.

To help offset this problem, Christ the King Parish recently sponsored a Christmas collection of BART tickets.

All participating congregations are generous, warm and caring to their guest families, Watson noted gratefully. Two weeks ago during its turn as host, Temple Isaiah in Lafayette set up a Christmas tree with ornaments and lights. The families were also invited to a night-before-Hanukah Shabbat.

As families move from church to synagogue, trying to get on their financial feet, Gwen Watson is on her own journey. She cruises highways 24 and 680, looking for available vacant buildings and has been turned down innumerable times by property owners.
For a successful community shelter to exist, Watson realizes, “You need the community to say ‘yes.’”

Meanwhile, the Orinda library is still vacant, but Watson has learned that office tenants will be moving in soon. She is grateful to the city, however. Orinda officials have allowed the Contra Costa Interfaith Council to store its extra blankets and sheets there rent free.

Watson hopes that with guidance from volunteer social workers, the families will find permanent housing, jobs and other resources to gain stability.

For more information about the social worker volunteer positions at the Winter Nights Shelter, call Watson at (925) 930-9965, or the Interfaith Center at (925) 933-6030.


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