Williamsburg's emergency shelter program in full swing

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

As darkness fell around Williamsburg Church of Christ on a Thursday in late December, the lights switched on and volunteers trickled in, readying the church for a fourth night hosting Community of Faith Mission.

A foyer containing the check-in and intake tables opened into a large room split by a wall of stacked chairs labeled "Sleeping Quarters, Men Only." Navy blue sleeping mats leaned against one side of the chair partition, ready for distribution at 8:15 p.m.

An overhead projector cast a blank blue screen on a wall nearby.

"I think we're going to stream some football for them tonight," said church minister Adam Davis.

Meanwhile, church member Toya Ricks, volunteering with husband Anthony and college-aged daughter Alexis, brewed a fresh batch of coffee to serve to guests as they arrived.

This is the church's second year as a partner with Community of Faith Mission — one of 33 faith-based partners serving Greater Williamsburg's homeless population from Nov. 13 to March 19.

Kathy Banfield and Renee Collins founded Community of Faith Mission, a nonprofit emergency winter shelter program, in 2012 to address a need in Williamsburg that they found wasn't being addressed.

"It crosses all demographics. There's no rhyme or reason to homelessness. It just happens to people," said Banfield, board president. "We discovered that Williamsburg was not immune to a homeless situation, a homeless population."

Every year, the Greater Virginia Peninsula Homeless Consortium conducts a Point-in-Time Count, as required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The count is conducted over a 24-hour period across six jurisdictions.

The 2016 Point-in-Time Count, conducted last January, found 464 total homeless people across the Peninsula. The total for Williamsburg, James City and York counties was 138. But those numbers are far from all-encompassing; while the Point-in-Time count includes those found living without shelter on that day, as well as counts from emergency shelters, transitional housing and Safe Haven programs, the count might not include people living on other people's couches or in cars, Banfield said.

In Community of Faith Mission's first season, the shelter served nearly 50 individuals, said executive director Ashley Willis. Last season, the shelter saw 105 different individuals, and Willis said this season's numbers are on a similar track, in the low 60s as of last week.

A night in the shelter

Though the location changes every seventh day, the routine remains consistent.

Guests enter the building at 6 p.m., with check-in and intake starting at 6:30 p.m. It's not unusual to see a line forming outside long before 6 p.m.

As guests waited to check in at Williamsburg Church of Christ, Anthony Ricks dashed back and forth, coffees and hot chocolates in hand. Food prepared by volunteers from St. Stephen Lutheran Church was en route, with dinner served at 7 p.m.

"We try really hard to be welcoming and open and not judgmental, and not making people feel like we're doing them this giant favor," Willis said. "Doing for them what we seriously would want done for us."

The shelter operates with a capacity of 25 individuals per night; no more than 35 different individuals can stay at the shelter over the course of a week.

Open to men and women, the shelter's main barrier to entry is if someone is a registered sex offender, Willis said. Otherwise, guests must simply present a photo I.D. Community of Faith's confidentiality policy restricted the Gazette from speaking with shelter guests.

Each guest receives a laundry bag filled with linens and toiletries for the week, returning the bag each morning. The lights go out at 10 p.m., with everyone up by 6 a.m. Upon checking out, each guest gets an all-day bus pass.

Whatever service the host locations can't provide, partners in the community help provide. Willis said the Y.M.C.A. allows use of its showers, while the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail does the mission's laundry on a weekly basis.

Even more, Banfield said Community of Faith Mission acts as a "bridge," referring shelter guests to other local agencies to move them into other, more permanent living situations. That's always the end goal.

"There are other programs," Banfield said. "We look at ourselves like a crisis point."

For example, if a family arrives to the shelter, Community of Faith Mission would contact the Avalon Center or Social Services. Other points of referral could include Veterans associations or Williamsburg House of Mercy.

Banfield noted that Community of Faith didn't see an increase in shelter guests from the 2014-2015 season to last season.

"We're just seeing, I think, the needs of individuals being met earlier on because of the different programs that are out there right now to help that," she said. "More and more agencies and programs are being started to meet the needs of people who are finding themselves without a home."

Next door neighbors

While she estimated 75 percent of shelter guests are single men and the rest single women, Willis sees a wide range of ages, from people in their 20s to their 70s. It's more rare to see families, Willis said, and when families do arrive, the shelter is often able to quickly refer them to a different local agency.

Even more varied are the situations that leave guests without a place of their own.

"It is true that a lot of people who are homeless are dealing with either substance abuse issues or mental health issues," Willis said. "But then there are a lot of people who, for whatever reason, are like one thing happened that tipped the scale. Maybe they got sick and then they couldn't work, and then they couldn't pay their rent, and then they got evicted."

Some shelter guests are employed, Willis said. She said the shelter sometimes has guests who stay a few nights, until they can afford a motel, but all guests can stay as long as needed.

"A lot of these people are very accomplished, have multiple degrees, have had lifelong careers," Davis said. "And it's an injury at work, it's a lay-off, it's a divorce, a bad financial decision or something of no fault of their own ... and they're on the streets."

Kris Magnusson, one of two shelter managers, shows up to the shelter five nights a week, from November through March. She'll often form friendships with long-term guests.

"It could be your next door neighbor," she said. "It could be someone in your church, and you don't even realize that they're homeless."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

Learn more

For more information on the Community of Faith Mission, including how to volunteer and donate, visit cofm.info, call 757-634-6787 or email info@cofm.info.

Churches to host the mission during 2016-2017 season: Williamsburg House of Mercy, Williamsburg Community Chapel, CrossWalk Community Church, Life Church, Williamsburg United Methodist Church, Williamsburg Christiam Church, Williamsburg Church of Christ. New Town United Methodist Church, Chickahominy Baptist Church, Saint John Baptist Church, Saint Martin's Episcopal Church, James River Baptist Church, Bruton Parish, Walnut Hills Baptist Church, Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Hickory Neck Episcopal Church, Williamsburg Presbyterian Church, Smith Memorial Baptist Church.

Warm up Williamsburg annual fundraiser

Community of Faith Mission will host its annual soup-tasting fundraiser on Jan. 27. Chefs from local restaurants, including Aromas, Fat Canary, Food for Thought and more, will donate soups to the fundraiser, and the evening also includes live music, bake and gift sales.

When: 5:15-8 p.m., Jan. 27

Where: Williamsburg Community Chapel, 3899 John Tyler Highway

Tickets: $20/advance, $25/door

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
57°