- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The cold winter weather is finally here, and for some, that means bundling up in winter coats, hats and scarves before braving the icy chill in the air.
For others, it means trying to find a warm place to sleep to avoid the freezing temperatures.
The first death related to hypothermia this winter was recently reported, according to a Dec. 27 press release from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The death of a Frederick County man, about 65 years old or older, was confirmed between Dec. 18 and 24.
To help prevent these types of deaths, many area churches are sheltering homeless people during the winter by participating in Safe Nights of Calvert County.
Program coordinator Mary Ann Zaversnik said Safe Nights is an interfaith emergency shelter program that operates during the “cold months.” This year, the program began Nov. 11, and will run through March 31, and the shelters are held in area churches.
“It is supported by the Calvert Interfaith Council, and it is interfaith, with many churches throughout the county participating,” Zaversnik said.
Zaversnik said Safe Nights provides shelter from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., seven days a week for homeless individuals. She said 21 churches are sheltering people this year and provide people with a cot, clean linens, toiletries, and an evening and morning meal and a bag lunch. So far, 11 people have been sheltered by the program.
Churches alternate weeks between November and March as to when they shelter people in the program, Zaversnik said. Each church begins their assigned week to shelter people on a Sunday and ends the following Sunday, Zaversnik said. About five churches also shelter people during the day on Sundays between shelters, she said.
A few years ago, Zaversnik said, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church started the “Sunday day program” for guests in Safe Nights because public transportation does not run and the libraries are closed Sundays. Five churches are assigned one Sunday of the month to host the day program, she said.
The Rev. Rick Hancock of Dunkirk Baptist Church said the church has been hosting for Safe Nights for at least three years and is one of the five churches that hosts guests during the day one Sunday a month. Hancock said the church will host program guests for a week in January.
Hancock said there is “an incredible need” in Calvert County for assistance for homeless people.
“One of the challenges is we live in one of the most affluent counties … yet there are still those in horrible need,” he said. “[Safe Nights] allows us to step into their lives in a small way and try to make a difference.”
For some people, Hancock said, sheltering at the church “might be a matter of life and death.” Staying at the church or eating a hot meal out of the bitter, freezing temperatures that occur during the winter could help save someone’s life.
“I think it also shows that even though they are facing difficult times, they’re not forgotten, they are still loved,” Hancock said.
Shawn Maassel of First Lutheran Church said the church has been participating in Safe Nights since it began and hosted about six people during the week of Dec. 23 through 30 this year. This was the first year the church hosted guests during a holiday, which Maassel said was “different for us” because guests are allowed to stay at hosting churches all day on holidays.
Throughout the year, homeless individuals frequent community facilities in the county during the day, Maassel said. Since those facilities are closed during the holidays, such as on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, those people do not have anywhere to go. Churches hosting guests during those times extend their open hours for the entire day, she said. Maassel said it was “a good experience” hosting guests this holiday because many volunteers found it was a good way to give back.
“Our county doesn’t meet all of the needs of our homeless, with a government funded or supported program,” Maassel said of Safe Nights. “This is one of the ways we can meet one of their needs. … There are still people out there that are homeless … but at least we’re meeting some of those needs.”
Safe Nights is run entirely by volunteers, Zaversnik said, adding that “it takes approximately 75 volunteers per week” to run the shelters. She said all of the volunteers are provided by the individual churches.
The Safe Nights program began about six years ago. In 2007, Project ECHO, a homeless shelter in Prince Frederick, was still in its old building and was limited in the number of people it could serve, Zaversnik said. At that time, Project ECHO, Calvert Interfaith Council and St. John Vianney Catholic Church representatives met together to discuss what could be done to house more people during the winter months.
Zaversnik said St. John Vianney Catholic Church pastor, the Rev. Peter J. Daly, volunteered to shelter people for two weeks and found six other churches to host the remaining weeks. Zaversnik said they decided to do a “trial program,” beginning in 2008, which is how the entire program began.
“When [Project] ECHO was smaller, they didn’t have enough space for men especially,” Daly said. “We needed a place for overflow and we started this program.”
At the time, Daly said, Project ECHO could accommodate about 22 people, and had eight beds available to men.
“[Project] ECHO is bigger now,” he said. “We don’t have as many people in Safe Nights as we used to.”
Although there might not be as many people signing up for the program, Daly said it is still important to have so people “don’t freeze to death.” He said, “Even if it’s helping one person, it’s good.”
Daly said the Safe Nights office is housed in the church, which also participates in the program by hosting guests each year.
Project ECHO has remained involved in Safe Nights since the program’s inception. Project ECHO executive director Trisha Gipson said she and other staff members meet with Zaversnik on a weekly basis during “Safe Nights season” for discussions.
“We look at people who we have in Safe Nights who we might be able to take in on our end and who we may be anticipating going into the Safe Nights program from the shelter,” Gipson said.
Zaversnik said Safe Nights is beneficial because it gives people shelter and the “bare necessities that any person needs,” such as a roof over their heads, food and a warm place to sleep.
“I also think it gives them an opportunity to see that there are people who care,” she said. “If that’s all we can get across, to me that’s well worth the effort.”
Zaversnik said anyone who needs shelter with Safe Nights needs to call 443-486-8670. Shelter is provided by appointment only, and applicants must go through a background check and must sign a guest agreement and an alcohol and drug abuse policy stating they will not use drugs or alcohol in the shelter or come in under the influence. Anyone that has a felony conviction cannot participate in the program, she said.