MOUNT VERNON — Finding a respite from homelessness during the coldest days of the year can seem like an insurmountable task for vulnerable members of the community.
Providing safe refuge during the winter is the Winter Sanctuary, Mount Vernon’s seasonal, emergency homeless shelter that works to connect homeless individuals to the resources that can empower them to change their lives for the better.
The Winter Sanctuary is an emergency shelter that hosts homeless individuals during the coldest months of the year, from Nov. 1 to April 1. According to Operations Manager Joe Springer, the shelter was able to extend their operations an additional month this year, closing May 1.
The sanctuary began as an offshoot from a local ministry who saw a problem and wanted to help their community, Springer said. Members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church began bringing people in during emergency situations, and the organization is now a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
Any adult over the age of 18 is eligible to stay at Winter Sanctuary, Springer said. There are only two obstacles that would keep someone from becoming a resident — status as a registered sex offender or a warrant being issued for their arrest.
Status as a drug addict or recovering from an addiction is not cause for the shelter to turn an individual away, Springer said. He noted, however, that the shelter does do drug testing on its residents, but a positive test wouldn’t restrict someone from becoming a resident.
“Even with a positive test we would welcome them into the shelter and connect them with some resources to help, like the Freedom Center,” Springer said. “We meet guests where they are. We still have to keep the environment safe, we don’t allow drug use on property, but a positive test wouldn’t keep them away.”
Springer explained that the shelter runs on a “warning system” regarding drug use. With the initial positive test, the guests are given a written warning, and after subsequent testing and warnings, could be asked to leave the Winter Sanctuary.
The shelter is completely funded by outside donations, Springer explained, with the bulk of the grant money coming from the United Way of Knox County. United Way increased their funding this year over last year, allowing the shelter to remain open into May. The Winter Sanctuary also receives a small grant from the Ariel Foundation and Jobs and Family Services, he said, which allows the organization to put families up in hotels while finding suitable housing, as well as individual donations.
They receive no state funding for their operations, Springer said.
“I really have two jobs when it comes to the Winter Sanctuary,” Springer said. “I am the operations manager, so I coordinate the day-to-day operations, but I also serve as an advocate for our guests here. We help them develop goals and connect them to resources, which could involve mental health, substance abuse, helping them find housing, whatever their goals are, it’s a matter of helping them to find the resources.”
The residents of the shelter follow a schedule that is designed to get them out into the community and meeting their goals, Springer said. The Winter Sanctuary is only an overnight shelter, with the shelter closing at 9 a.m. each day to residents and opening back up at 6: 30 p.m.
The shelter does offer extended hours for guests over the weekend, opening at 6:30 p.m. until 5 p.m. the next day, closing for an hour and a half for the Hot Meals program, and then opening again at 6:30 p.m. This is because many of the agencies they utilize to achieve their goals are closed over the weekend, Springer said.
“We want our guests out, working on their goals in the community,” Springer said.
The Winter Sanctuary has enough space for 30 adults, 18 men and 12 women. Springer said that the shelter cannot accommodate children due to the open rooms within the building, but homeless families that need assistance are able to find temporary shelter in hotels, coordinated with the shelter, and funded with a grant by Job and Family Services.
The shelter is entirely run on volunteer support, Springer said. There are 75 volunteers there currently, who serve as the guests’ primary supervisors and source of encouragement. With three shifts each day, 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., the shelter sees 180 shifts each month, which, to Springer, means the shelter simply couldn’t run without them.
The Winter Sanctuary has plans for expanding their operations, most notably, to be able to house homeless families and children.
“Over the next two years, we want to expand our advocacy to help families with children,” Springer said. “Whether that includes building a shelter or buying a house, we can’t really say yet.”
Additional expansion plans include increasing the extended hours that are being offered this year, Springer said, while noting that expanding to include a 24-hour, year-round shelter would be very difficult. The shelter’s funding and volunteers would need to roughly double to accommodate the needs of its guests in a year-round shelter.
As of Dec. 17, there were 20 residents utilizing the emergency shelter of the Winter Sanctuary, with a total capacity of up to 30. There is no limit to the length of stays for guests, Springer explained, and they can stay anywhere from a few days to the entire season.
“We’ve already been full this season,” Springer said. “The challenges associated with finding affordable housing varies wildly from person to person, as do their goals, so it’s just about working on the goals and finding that next step forward.”
Springer noted that in 2018, 112 men and women resided at the shelter.
Despite the Winter Sanctuary being a seasonal, emergency shelter, Springer said that his services as an advocate are available all year.
“We have a lot of goals for the future,” Springer said. “We work hard at getting our guests to move forward, of getting affordable housing, getting all of our guests into apartments, and I feel we do a good job of that. We’re a seasonal shelter, but I’m an advocate for homelessness year-round, and we work constantly to provide these individuals with a way forward.”