Parishes join interfaith partnership to shelter Vancouver’s homeless each winter

  • Written by Morningstar Stevenson
  • Published in Local
Volunteers from Holy Redeemer Parish in Vancouver work in the kitchen to prepare meals for the Winter Hospitality Overflow program during Thanksgiving week in 2017. Members of 10 Catholic parishes and missions in the Vancouver area are among those volunteering at the two winter shelters operated by WHO, a collaboration of social service agencies and faith-based/community organizations. Photo: Carrie Thatcher Volunteers from Holy Redeemer Parish in Vancouver work in the kitchen to prepare meals for the Winter Hospitality Overflow program during Thanksgiving week in 2017. Members of 10 Catholic parishes and missions in the Vancouver area are among those volunteering at the two winter shelters operated by WHO, a collaboration of social service agencies and faith-based/community organizations. Photo: Carrie Thatcher

VANCOUVER – When Joan Heimbigner’s son was in eighth grade, they signed up to volunteer with their community’s Winter Hospitality Overflow (WHO) program. The move has made a big difference in their lives.

“It was so rewarding to see my son be that excited about helping others,” Heimbigner said. “Since then, he’s become very service-oriented.”

And Heimbigner is now the program’s volunteer coordinator at her parish, Our Lady of Lourdes in Vancouver. Each year, the parish commits a week to assisting the men who seek shelter with WHO when Vancouver’s regular shelters are full.

It’s an easy way to give back, Heimbigner said.

“The men just need company, someone to sit with them and have dinner,” she said. “What we may think of as a small way to help may come across in a big way for them.”

WHO, started in 2003, is a partnership of more than 50 faith-based organizations, including 10 Catholic parishes and missions in southwest Washington (see box). The organizations provide volunteers to keep overflow shelters at two churches open every night from November through March.

During the 2017-18 season, WHO served 73 children and 236 adults at St. Andrew Lutheran Church and 60 men at St. Paul Lutheran Church, according to Carrie Thatcher, the volunteer site coordinator at St. Andrew.

Larry Reynolds, a volunteer from St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Camas, said, “A lot of Catholics don’t realize this shelter is going on. They don’t realize how many less-fortunate people there are in our area.”

Making guests feel welcome

Volunteers are essential to keeping the program running smoothly, Thatcher said. Typically, she explained, each parish or church signs up for a week or two and designates a team leader responsible for recruiting the 10 to 20 volunteers needed each night. The volunteers cover shifts throughout the night, from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. (each shift is typically three to four hours).

WHO Shelters
Cots await homeless men seeking a warm place to eat, shower and sleep at the Winter Hospitality Overflow shelter at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Vancouver. A volunteer took up a collection and donated the cots after seeing how difficult it was for the men to sleep on floor mats. Members of 10 Catholic parishes and missions in the Vancouver area are among those volunteering at two WHO shelters. Photo: Carrie Thatcher

“Our role as volunteers is making [the guests] feel as welcome as possible,” said Pat Rea, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Vancouver who has volunteered with WHO since its beginning. “We’re there to serve them.”

Volunteers help greet and check in the clients (who must meet with a case worker before arriving), usually prepare and serve an evening meal, set up mats in the sleeping area and make sure everyone is sticking to the shower schedule.

Most guests seem grateful for a hot meal since they may have spent the day outdoors, said Reynolds, who initially volunteered because he likes to cook. “It’s kind of heart-wrenching sometimes when you see families and kids under the age of 10,” he added.

Before “lights out,” volunteers mingle with the guests and “help them with whatever they need,” Reynolds said. “Some people are there almost every night, so you see the same faces from year to year.”

The guests help maintain the shelters by signing up for chores such as vacuuming or cleaning the kitchen and bathroom, said Germaine Robinett, the team lead at her parish, Sacred Heart in Battle Ground. Sacred Heart and St. Philip Parish in Woodland share a week at the men’s shelter, teaming up with their missions in Kalama, Ridgefield and Yacolt to provide volunteers.

Many of the men staying at the shelter have taken it upon themselves to be leaders, said Kathy Lassiter, a parishioner at St. Mary of Guadalupe Mission in Ridgefield, who helps Robinett recruit volunteers.

“There’s a group of guys who are very helpful,” Lassiter said. “If you’re a new volunteer, they’ll show you where the coffee is stored and where to take out the garbage.”

In the morning, volunteers make wake-up calls, set out breakfast foods and prepare sandwiches so guests can take a lunch with them.

“Not everyone who is homeless is jobless, which I think is a common misconception,” Rea said.

At the shelter, Robinett said, “the men feel cared for. Sometimes all they need is someone to listen to them to give them a sense of self-worth.”

Lassiter said volunteering at the shelter has made her realize that “everyone has struggles. God takes us wherever we’re at.”

A way to live their faith

WHO — a collaboration between Share, a nonprofit service agency in Vancouver, and Council for the Homeless, a Clark County nonprofit — has a yearly budget of about $46,500, Thatcher said. The organizations providing volunteers are also invited to make donations to assist the budget, she said.

Some groups hold annual fundraisers; for instance, a November 2018 choir concert at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Vancouver raised $8,000 for WHO, Thatcher said. Other groups hold sock or blanket drives, or donate all the food and beverages for the meals they serve during their volunteer weeks, she added.

For the volunteers, serving the homeless is a way to live their faith.

“As Christians, we are obligated to help those who are less fortunate,” Reynolds said.

“It’s not necessarily a service anyone looks forward to, covering a 3 a.m. shift,” Lassiter said, “but we all do it because we’re called to do it.

Rea said she doesn’t mind missing a little sleep during the two weeks that St. Joseph helps out at the shelter.

“I do it because that’s what God tells us to do,” she said. “If I don’t do it, then who will?”

Parishes volunteering with WHO

The following 10 parishes and missions in the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Southern Deanery volunteer at the two Winter Hospitality Overflow shelters in Vancouver:

Battle Ground: Sacred Heart

Camas: St. Thomas Aquinas

Kalama: St. Joseph Mission

Ridgefield: St. Mary of Guadalupe Mission

Vancouver: Holy Redeemer, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. John the Evangelist, St. Joseph

Woodland: St. Philip

Yacolt: St. Joseph the Worker Mission