Sheltering the Homeless From Winter Nights

Feb 23, 2017

In 2004, religious congregations in Charlottesville formed a coalition to prevent homeless people from freezing overnight in the winter. Today, that group shelters more than 200 people, 150 nights out of the year. WMRA’s Jordy Yager has this report.

It’s 5:30 on a near-freezing winter evening.

STAFF: You ready? I’m ready. I’m ready. Whoops, excuse me, gentlemen, come on in.

Every night, during the coldest months of the year, the basement door at The Haven swings open, welcoming Charlottesville’s homeless. Located in an old downtown church, The Haven is a day shelter. But it’s also the point of entry for an offsite overnight shelter, known as PACEM. Tonight PACEM is home to 45 men.

BRIAN HENDERSON: You know what, I’m going to be honest with you, you’re talking about 45 different paths.

Brian Henderson is an intake supervisor at PACEM. He says there’s no one face of homelessness.

HENDERSON: Some folks, it’s about just making sure I stay alive for the day. Some folks have chemical dependence, where in all actuality, if I don’t have that drink, I might not make it to the next day. You got some folks that are working. You got some folks that are really on the grind, they’re attempting to find work, they’re filling out applications. You’ve got some guys that are flagging and flying signs.

During the day Brian works at the city’s Department of Social Services. He knows more about these guys than most. Tonight he’s doing intake.

HENDERSON: So essentially, one, two, three, four, five is your priority…

With everyone accounted for, a fleet of large vans pulls up outside. The men go to one shelter, the women to another. The few couples there are, kiss each other goodnight, and they’re off.

PACEM is an acronym that stands for People And Congregations Engaged in Ministry. Every week or two, from October through March, a different house of worship opens its doors to the homeless. Tonight, the men are at First Presbyterian Church on Park Street. On one half of the church’s large fellowship hall are 45 cots. On the other side are a dozen dining tables.

Church volunteers help serve the guys a different meal each night. Tonight it’s chili, cornbread, and salad. Jennifer Jones has been volunteering with the church for nearly a decade.

JENNIFER JONES: I think when you sit down next to them and eat dinner, or you play a game of cards with them, or my son, at 5 years old, learning to shoot hoops, they taught him how to play spades, you realize that they’re normal people, just like you and I. And they all have a story and it just—they’re human beings.

After dinner, some of the men walk over to the old carriage house, where they can shower in privacy. A James Bond film plays in the common room and Jones’s son Nathan, who’s now 14, helps them do laundry.

Every season there are new faces and guys who return. Nathan says they’ve become an extended family of sorts, giving him a sense of safety and comfort when they’re around. He realizes though, not everyone may feel that way. There’s a stigma to homelessness, says Dawn Grzegorcyzyk, the executive director of PACEM. People who have never been houseless have common misperceptions about people who are. 

DAWN GRZEGORCYZYK:  That they’re lazy. I hear that. And that’s wrong. That is so wrong. It is so hard to live on the street. You have to be so resourceful.

The guys I talk to at PACEM, they agree. They also say, there’s an empathy gap.

RICKY: They should jump in our shoes for like a month.

Ricky’s 51 years old, and been homeless three times.

RICKY: You’ve got to sleep outside for a couple of months and see how you like it. Get your sleeping bag, you can have your sleeping bag, but you got to sleep on the side of the road….They’ll have a better understanding, they’d be more humble. They’d have a better understanding of what we going through, because a lot of them don’t know what we’re going through. They see us with the homeless sign, they think we lying, but—then some people have a homeless sign, and they go smoke drugs or they get to drinking. They only drink to calm their misery, what’s going on up here, that’s why they drink.

Another guest named Christopher, in his late 30’s, agrees.

CHRISTOPHER: Not all of us homeless people are trash. I’m a computer technician, I’ve got an IQ of 168, and I’m just down on my luck, so don’t judge us by what we look like, don’t judge us by where we’re at, you could be here too.

Christopher’s never been homeless before. And Grzegorcyzyk explains, that really, the only difference between me and him, is that I still have a network of family and friends to bail me out in times of crisis. For these guys, for one reason or another, their social safety net is gone.

GRZEGORCYZYK: That’s another reason why I like working here, is because I feel like we the community are stepping in and we’re saying, ‘Okay, your family couldn’t do it, but we can. We’re your family. We’re here in Charlottesville and we’re helping each other.’

Back at the church, 11 o’clock means lights out. Many of the guys are already in bed. The day’s exhaustion has settled in. The snores get louder, conversations quieter, and PACEM staff hunkers down for the night.

Shortly before 6, they get their first wake up call. The music starts. And by 6:30, they’re out the door. For some it’s off to work, for others it’s back to the Haven. Some hustle to make it through the day, others are one step closer to getting off the streets.

There’s a difference between being homeless and houseless. These men may not have a house right now, but—whether it’s one night, one week, or one season—PACEM makes sure they’ve always got a home.