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Homeless numbers at church shelters down for now

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Darryl Enriquez
December 12, 2010
— As Walworth County braces for winter, 20 churches are working to safeguard homeless men from the perils of seasonal cold and isolation.

But leaders of the church consortium known as the Walworth County Emergency Homeless Shelter are quick to say that their ability to shelter the needy is as vulnerable as their guests.


The traveling homeless shelter rotates among church basements, where guests eat, sleep and share tales of their tattered lives with those who care and understand.


To keep the circle intact, more host churches are needed. The group had 11, but as churches dropped out of the network and others joined, the end result is one fewer site this winter.


That concerns the Rev. Bill Myrick, pastor of Christ Episcopal Church in Delavan. Myrick was at the forefront of creating the network of temporary shelters about five years ago. He remains involved.


"We need more participants," Myrick said. "There are 170 churches in Walworth County. We have 10 as shelters and another 10 that provide meals and support.


"If every church became involved, a church would do a week of being a shelter only once every three years."


Myrick understands that getting 100 percent participation is unlikely.


"It's not a glamorous ministry," Myrick said. "I understand that churches are committed to doing other ministries, and others just don't want to be a part of this."


'No more work'


In the basement of St. Benedict Catholic Church in Fontana, homeless men congregated Wednesday to discuss the day's events, share a good meal and catch a good night's sleep.


Alfredo Godino of Acapulco, Mexico, affectionately took a framed photograph of his wife and daughter from his backpack and displayed it on a table next to his cot.


"There's no more work," Godino said. "I miss my daughter Amelia.


Bert Zeanah, 43, and David Wilson, 52, anxiously discussed their job hunts and pursuit of available public assistance.


Wilson favors dock and manufacturing work. Zeanah has training as a cook and wants to return to that profession.


Wilson said he was laid off. When his savings ran out, he became homeless. Zeanah said he's getting his life back together after a three-year prison term.


Both admitted swallowing their pride to stay in the shelters but are happy they did.


The alternative, they said, was hunger, bitter cold and mind-numbing isolation.


Easy and rewarding


Deb Weber is the organizer of the shelter network. She also works as the secretary at two Delavan churches—United Methodist and Christ Episcopal. Both are shelters.


"It's a commitment that's very easy to do and is rewarding," Weber said.


Organizers say with pride that their work with men keeps other resources available to shelter women and children.


Besides sites, Weber said the program needs volunteers to stay nights with the homeless.


Weber said the atmosphere is safe because intoxicated men are not allowed in the shelters. Those suspected of drinking are given breath tests prior to entering.


When the shelters began, men who consumed alcohol were allowed in, but they tended to be volatile and too much for the volunteer staff to handle, Weber said.


"We have recovering alcoholics who stay with us, and they don't want to smell alcohol on others," Weber said.


Guests, a term Weber uses for the homeless, also are checked for outstanding criminal warrants. Police are notified when offenders are found. Sex offenders are not allowed, she said.


The program also needs gas cards, phone cards and money not only during the holidays but throughout the year, Weber said. The shelters generally are open from September through April.


So far, homeless numbers are down from the previous year, Weber said. About 10 men nightly are showing up at the shelters, compared to nearly 20 a year ago, she said.


Myrick explained that it's still early winter, and guest numbers will climb after the holidays.


"I don't assume things are getting better," Myrick said. "It's just timing."


The shelters don't allow homeless who stayed the previous year to return a second consecutive season, Myrick said. That rule dispels the notion that the shelters are permanent housing, Weber said.


"Some of those people are still out there," he said.


Path to grace


As much a religious philosopher as he is a pragmatic administrator, Myrick said people should think of the poor as a resource in which to attain a state of grace through generosity and tolerance.


"Looking into the face of a homeless person is looking at the possibility of one's own downfall," Myrick warned.


To illustrate their points, shelter supporters built a float for the Elkhorn and Lake Geneva Christmas parades. The float's theme was "Not Everyone Will Be Home for Christmas."


One side of the float had a depiction of a lovely family Christmas. The other side was a homeless man lying on a bench. Myrick played the part of the guy on the bench, and he said it was cold.


It was similar to a role Myrick played a number of years ago, when he disguised himself as a homeless man who asked parishioners outside of his church for money.


He received mostly cold shoulders.


"I was angry and growing madder by the minute," Myrick said.


His exploit caught media attention. For a while, Myrick was the poster child for the homeless. It helped launched the temporary homeless shelters.


Myrick remembers the first homeless guests to appear at his church, a couple in their 70s who had lost their farm to condemnation because power was turned off.


"Who would think that at that age you'd be homeless?" Myrick said. "These were tough people who were used to taking care of themselves, but even they needed a hand."


For help


Men seeking help from the Walworth County Emergency Homeless Shelter can call (262) 903-9276.


For volunteer and shelter program information, call (262) 215-3451 or e-mail shelter903warm@yahoo.com.


Shelter fundraiser


The Walworth County Emergency Homeless Shelter will host a bowling fundraiser from 6-10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29, at Delavan Lanes.


Tickets are $10 for two games of bowling and shoes. Food, raffles, silent auction and a bake sale will be offered, and a Wii videogame system will be among the raffle prizes.


The shelter also will host a golf outing June 13.


Sheriff's shelter


The lobby of the Walworth County Sheriff's Office is open for shelter during extreme weather throughout the year, Undersheriff Kurt Picknell said.


The homeless, including people who are intoxicated, can stay temporarily in the lobby, but they should expect to be questioned by a deputy, Picknell said.



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