Western North Carolina congregation partners on year-round ‘Safe Shelter’ to address homelessness

By David Paulsen
Posted Aug 8, 2023
Winter Safe Shelter

An ecumenical initiative in Asheville, North Carolina, is poised to expand its Winter Safe Shelter into a year-round shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Photo: Diocese of Western North Carolina

[Episcopal News Service] An Episcopal congregation in Asheville, North Carolina, partnered last winter with two other churches to successfully operate a shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Now the three churches have offered to establish and run a year-round shelter, doubling their capacity to 20 beds, as part of a new regional effort.

“Homelessness exists in large part because we’re isolated from each other and our shared humanity,” the Rev. Mike Reardon, associate pastor at Grace Episcopal Church, told Episcopal News Service. For his congregation, supporting the shelter has been an opportunity “for our hearts to be transformed, so that we see other people as we see ourselves.”

The National Alliance to End Homelessness identified a gap of 95 beds between Asheville’s shelter inventory and the greater need in its community. Asheville’s Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee responded last month by releasing a proposal to expand capacity that included the three church’s partnership as part of its solution. Under the plan, the churches will expand their partnership to create a year-round Safe Shelter.

The ecumenical initiative started as a seasonal shelter to support what the city of Asheville and Buncombe County call “Code Purple,” an emergency community mobilization that houses unsheltered people whenever temperatures drop below freezing in the winter. In 2022, the city and county counted 637 people who were homeless in the county, including 232 without any shelter, figures cited by a National Alliance to End Homelessness study of homelessness in the region.

As last winter approached, Grace Episcopal teamed up with Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church  and Trinity United Methodist Church to establish a partnership they called Winter Safe Shelter, renting a vacant church building previously occupied by another Presbyterian church. Rather than only opening on frigid nights, “we figured we might as well stay open nightly throughout the colder months, because the distinction between 32 [degrees] and 37 is a fine one,” said Reardon, who serves as Grace Episcopal Church’s point person for the partnership.

The three churches were able to raise $80,000 in grants and individual donations to support Winter Safe Shelter, including a $10,000 grant from the Diocese of Western North Carolina. Used beds were donated by a local hotel that had shut down. Volunteers arranged them in a large open space at the former Presbyterian church to accommodate up to 10 people, with a dining area and kitchen nearby.

The congregations hosted community meals with the shelter residents on Wednesdays, and donated meals were arranged on the other evenings. Over the course of the winter, the shelter also employed about 12 part-time workers, several of them as peer support specialists who took turns at the shelter on overnight shifts. Other paid staff members focused on volunteer coordination, food procurement and guest intake, which was based on referrals.

By the end of the winter, the shelter had welcomed 32 people, from newborn to age 69, while also helping the shelter’s guests find permanent housing, according to a report produced by the three churches and the social advocacy group Counterflow.

The former Presbyterian church that had housed the winter shelter is slated for demolition, so Reardon said Grace Episcopal and its partner congregations instead would develop a rotation of several active churches in Asheville that are able to house people who are homeless for a month at a time.

The plan, which is still pending final approval by the city and county, would take advantage of some federal funding sources in at least its first year. That additional funding would allow Safe Shelter to hire a full-time director and additional permanent staff members. If approved, the goal is to open this fall.

Lining up multiple different locations over the year isn’t ideal, for the organizers or for the guests, Reardon said, but his congregation and the other participating churches are up to the task of accommodating those in need.

“It’s a significant challenge, the amount of energy that goes into moving a shelter month by month, just the physical labor that’s involved as well as the emotional labor of those who are staying there,” he said. “And yet we’re doing what we can and the best that we can, in order to fill an existing gap as best as we know how.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.