Community, Religion

Rotating winter shelter for homeless off to a busy start in Citrus Heights

Winter shelter, HART. Luke Otterstad, photo credit
Volunteers serve homeless guests a hot meal at a local church as part of a winter shelter program. File photo from 2017. // CH Sentinel

By Thomas J. Sullivan–
Volunteers at Celtic Cross Presbyterian Church in Citrus Heights welcomed a break from days of heavy rain this week as they closed out a busy seven-day “Winter Sanctuary” event on Saturday, having offered a hot dinner and a warm place to sleep for an average of two-dozen homeless individuals each evening.

“It’s a ministry of presence,” said Jan Souza, church coordinator for the annual volunteer program. “We’re here to help, to listen and to offer spiritual support to them in any way we can.”

The Winter Sanctuary is an annual event for the Celtic Cross Church community, at 5839 Dewey Drive, which began its participation in the program three years ago. Coordinated by the nonprofit Citrus Heights Homeless Assistance Resource Team, area churches take weekly turns over a two-month period to offer a rotating shelter for the homeless during the coldest and wettest months of the year.

Church volunteers received training from Citrus Heights HART staff members and worked four-hour shifts over each 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. period, Souza said. Housekeeping chores were assigned to homeless guests prior to turning in each evening.

HART estimates there are more than 300 homeless persons living on the streets of Citrus Heights, said Ben Lehr, who has worked with HART for the past five years.

“This year, on account of the rain, we saw much more interest in the program than we had capacity,” Souza said.

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Messiah Lutheran Church served as the intake site for participating homeless guests who were shuttled to Celtic Cross by van. Participants sheltered were each registered by HART personnel at the intake site where they were screened for specific social programs which may fit their needs. Services including mental health, veterans counseling and job training are offered. Resources range from detox programs, food stamp applications, identification cards, and other essential documents and services to help get them off the street and into a sustainable future.

Inside Celtic Cross’s community room, guests received a hot evening meal, and were given use of a clean sleeping bag and cot for the evening. Sleeping bags were collected at the end of the week and sent out for cleaning, before being reissued to the next participating church site. Some enjoyed the opportunity to watch television and a movie in the church lobby.

Host volunteers and HART staff also joined guests for dinner each evening, answering questions and offering personal support where possible.

The Sentinel spoke to many guests over successive evenings who said they were grateful to get out of the rain and appreciated the comforts offered by volunteers at Celtic Cross. Their stories varied, some participating in work programs, others who have lived on the streets for many years.

A Navy veteran, who preferred not to give his name, entered service in the mid-1980s and said he had been on the streets for several years. He was unaware that he may qualify for military disability based on his prior service aboard a submarine tender as a hull technician. A younger Navy veteran, discharged while in basic training, welcomed a place to stay for the evening while he considered what to do next.

The Citrus Heights Navigator, Toni Morgan, was also seen interacting with homeless guests during the evening shelter. To ensure her homeless clients are given access to services designed explicitly for them, Morgan said she does most of her work in the field by engaging potential clients where they live. Her job is to locate each individual member of the community that is currently experiencing homelessness, complete an initial intake assessment, and see which services best fits the client’s needs.

The Navigator program was launched as a partnership between HART, Sacramento Self-Help Housing, and the City of Citrus Heights, which provides annual funding for the program.

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Last year, HART’s Winter Sanctuary program involved 10 faith-based organizations and 10 community groups. They were able to serve 69 homeless in the eight-week program. This year they expect the participant total to be higher.

The co-host of this year’s Winter Sanctuary program is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Relief Society. Participating community groups include the Rotary Clubs of Citrus Heights and Orangevale, Dignity Health, the Veterans Administration and CalFresh.

The 2016-2017 winter season marked the first annual winter shelter. After meeting with the Rancho Cordova HART, getting a tour of their winter shelter, and even hosting a week of their shelter last season, Citrus Heights HART formed a winter shelter committee to take charge of reaching out to local churches.

For an accumulation of 55 straight nights last year, volunteers reported clocking in a total of 2,756 hours of helping hands. The intake site volunteers that assisted with checking in each guest and other services provided a total of 852 hours. Host Meal Prep and serving volunteers donated a total of 1,120 hours, night security a total of 672 hours and bus transportation volunteering clocking in at 112 hours.

The rotating model relies on the hospitality of one different church every week to offer a room in which guests can sleep. Guests check in before dinner every night at a check-in site then are bused to the week’s host church, where they receive a warm dinner, a place to sleep, and a bagged breakfast in the morning. Volunteers conduct check-in interviews, prepare meals, and supervise the guests as they sleep to ensure safety.

The members of Celtic Cross look forward to their participation in the Winter Sanctuary program next year, Souza said. “We are glad in a small way that we can make a difference in their lives and give them a measure of hope.”

Thomas Sullivan
Thomas Sullivan

Editor’s note: This story was written by Thomas J. Sullivan, who has joined the Citrus Heights Sentinel as a general assignment reporter. Sullivan moved to Citrus Heights in August 2018 from Pacifica, Calif., and is a former reporter turned classroom teacher. Sullivan will be working the small business and commercial real estate beat, as well as writing feature stories.

Since leaving the Bay Area, Sullivan says he’s thoroughly enjoying getting to know the community here. In addition to his reporting duties, Sullivan is also an active substitute teacher in the San Juan Unified School District. He has taught history and social science in the middle and high school levels.

He has written for business and legal weekly newspapers including the Arizona Business Gazette, San Diego Business Journal and San Diego Daily Transcript in his professional writing career. The enlisted Navy veteran of the 1991 Gulf War earned his B.A. degree in journalism in 1978 from the University of Rhode Island.

We welcome Thomas to the staff of the Citrus Heights Sentinel and sincerely thank our subscribers for making this possible.