Home Columns The Emergency Overnight Warming Shelter at Bethany Church in Montpelier

The Emergency Overnight Warming Shelter at Bethany Church in Montpelier

By The Rev. Amy Pitton and the Board of Directors, Bethany Church

At the beginning of July, the Good Samaritan Haven approached Bethany Church, asking if we would be willing to host the Emergency Overnight Warming Shelter again for the fourth winter. They indicated that they had unsuccessfully pursued other options and are now in the position of trying to secure shelter to meet anticipated need in the coming winter.

This request created a dilemma for our spiritual community. Providing the shelter has been an important justice ministry for us for the last three years. We have gotten to know the residents of the shelter and heard their stories. We have enjoyed working with the staff of the Good Samaritan Haven. We feel that the presence of the shelter has helped Montpelier to become more aware of the issues of homelessness in our community so that those issues can be addressed in more proactive ways, and many community members supported the temporary shelter by providing meals and supplies.

Yet, as we have provided the shelter space, we have been clear in saying that we feel that the shelter at Bethany Church is a bandage that temporarily allows time to address a serious community health problem. Shelter guests receive only the barest minimum, with the modest goal of preventing them from dying in the cold — 20 temporary cots in a large basement room with no privacy, shared bathrooms, very limited storage space for belongings, and no day shelter/support. This is just about the least our city and state could offer. Yes, there is limited access to services through the Good Samaritan Haven, which are utilized to some degree. But the fact that there are folks who have spent the last three winters in the Bethany Warming Shelter indicates that the shelter is not temporary and that effectively dealing with this issue is beyond what an emergency warming shelter can provide.

The request to host the shelter again this coming winter came as a surprise because at the end of March, because of concerns about COVID-19, the shelter at Bethany closed abruptly on orders from the state, and guests were moved to the Econo Lodge on Northfield Street, where they could be housed safely and quarantined if necessary. The least we could do in housing folks became unsafe.

As we consider Good Samaritan Haven’s request, we have been keenly aware that as our global population has more experience with COVID-19, experts have come to realize that transmission is more airborne than previously thought. Bethany Church has no appropriate ventilation systems. We believe that if 20 people sleeping in a single room with little ventilation was unsafe in March, it will be unsafe this coming winter.

There is also the concern that if we host the shelter this winter, we will not be able to do much of anything else in our building because of concerns about virus transmission. Bethany Church does much more in the community than simply providing space for the shelter. Currently, we are providing or supplementing lunches for about 40 people three times a week out of our kitchen and have been doing so since March. As soon as we are able, we are planning to provide space for the 15 recovery groups that normally meet in our building, as well as the two Scouts troops chartered with us. We also hope, sometime in the coming months, to resume our Sunday morning worship services, open our labyrinth and chapel piano to the public, and provide ways for people to feed their spirits in our building, all of which have been suspended since March. Hosting the shelter this winter could preclude any of those things from happening.

You see the dilemma we struggled with. We don’t want folks to suffer or die in the cold. We think there should be much better solutions to the issue of homelessness in Montpelier than 20 vulnerable people sleeping on cots in a room with no ventilation. However, other solutions are not immediately clear at this moment. We are concerned that we have become the easy option that might in fact impede efforts to find better and healthier options for sheltering individuals experiencing homelessness in Central Vermont. We serve many folks in the community in addition to those who are homeless, and we want to be able to provide those ministries as soon as we are able. And, in the end, we are a church. We are not a homeless shelter. Our mission is to help folks to take care of their spiritual lives, and in that process, to reach out to our neighbors with love and compassion. There are other more appropriate organizations that take care of people’s physical needs, including housing. It is important that we stay true to our primary purpose as a church.

For that reason, after much struggle with the request, Bethany Church has declined Good Samaritan Haven’s request to host the Emergency Warming Shelter this year. The advent of the COVID-19 virus has made it even more clear to us that it is time for Montpelier to address the challenges of homelessness in our community with more than a bandage approach. Bethany Church is committed to participating in this process, but our building can no longer be considered a safe and appropriate temporary shelter. It is time for a real solution. We will continue to love and serve our neighbors — supporting their spiritual needs, feeding them through Bethany Bowl, and working for peace and justice for all, including our neighbors who are homeless. We thank all of the community members who have donated to Bethany because of the Shelter, and for the other churches who stepped up to provide evening meals for the shelter guests. Your support has truly made a difference.

May we be empowered as a community and state to address the homelessness of our neighbors in bold and caring ways.