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First Lutheran homeless respite takes seasonal break

April 15, 2011

by Christine Kenyi

First Lutheran Church (Christine Kenyi)

For the past 10 years First Lutheran Church has been the home of the Emergency Overflow Shelter providing a warm place for up to 19 individuals every night during the winter months. This week the church closes its shelter doors after another successful winter season. Those temporary occupants, though, now return  to the realities of homelessness.

According to the Homeless Action Committee, each year in Albany between 2,000 and 4,000 people are homeless, including several hundred who sleep outside on the streets. First Lutheran Church, the oldest Lutheran congregation in North America, was founded in 1649 and has been working to provide a solution to this problem for years.

Many of the shelter occupants are referred by the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society. This is an organization that serves the New York State Capital District and works with all the homeless shelters in Albany. They make referrals to First Lutheran’s overflow shelter when all other shelters in the Albany area are full. Many of those taken in by First Lutheran are ineligible to stay at other shelters because of addictions, mental health, or behavioral issues.

“We can’t shelter anyone who is under the influence of drugs and alcohol,” said Latrecia Miles, a senior case manager at the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society.

This is the reason why the city of Albany had concerns about letting the shelter open in January 2003. The Board of Zoning Appeals refused to grant First Lutheran a permit amid fears that the shelter guests would  cause trouble in the Pine Hills neighborhood. Despite this setback, the shelter opened and the city tookno further steps to stop them, especially since over the years there have been relatively few incidents.

Pamela Bullock, the program director of the shelter said its mission is to offer a safe haven regardless of the person’s

Airbeds for homeless located in the basement of First Lutheran (Christine Kenyi)

circumstances as long as they are not a danger to themselves or others. The shelter houses up to 19 men and also allows transgender individuals to stay there, since these are populations that are not always served by existing homeless shelters in Albany.

“What we do is give refuge for individuals; we offer them a hot meal that is provided by churches throughout the community,” said Bullock.

She encourages her staff to treat occupants of the shelter as guests and emphasizes a sense of community and mutual respect. The shelter staff and its volunteers help the homeless with doing their laundry and offer a hot meal every night. Other activities include movie and card nights.

“I think we give them back a sense of dignity and self worth here because we don’t treat them like homeless people. The most important thing I tell my staff is to treat them like you would guests in your home,” said Bullock.

This season the shelter has given refuge to more than 180 different individuals who have used its beds and meals for three nights or more. There are also a few individuals who have used the shelter daily throughout the season. Now that winter is over, Bullock said that many of the people they serve will be left in difficult situations again.

“Many of them will return to parks, get sleeping bags and sleep at the water front and go back to the streets,”  she said.

The reason for this is other shelters will not cater to homeless individuals that have addiction or behavioral problems.

“Unfortunately there’s not too many places for this population to go. Do I worry about them? Yes,” said Bullock.

When in season, the shelter is supported by the Capital Area Council of Churches. Kitt Jackson, the administrative director of the Capital Area of Council Churches outlined their relationship with First Lutheran’s shelter as crucial for the continued success of the shelter.

“We are essentially the sponsor of the shelter. We put notices out in our newsletter, we publicize their needs and make sure they are able to operate,” said Jackson.

She attributed the continued success of the overflow shelter to many congregations in the area from places such as Clifton Park, Loudonville, Saratoga and many others. Congregational groups and families tend to prepare all the evening meals, and a group of dedicated staff and volunteers offer their time each night.

First Lutheran Church Listing in the Albany Evening Journal (1925)

Another vital component is the fundraising efforts that the Capital Area Council of Churches facilitates in conjunction with other churches and groups. Jackson cited examples such as the annual Bowl-a-thon that takes place in February at the Sunset Recreation Bowling Lanes in Albany, and is organized by students from SUNY Albany’s Corner Stone Protestant Campus Ministry. During last year’s event 155 bowlers from 19 different congregations came together and raised more than $11,500.

Marilyn Graver and Dorothy Wimble, both members of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Loudonville have been volunteering at the overflow shelter for two years.

“The men have always been respectful, it’s different from what I expected,” said Graver. “They have formed their own community, and they look out for each other. It amazes me.”

Both volunteers felt that giving their time to the shelter was worthwhile because of the satisfaction that they got from being a positive force in someone’s life.

“My feeling is they are human beings just like everyone else,” said Wimble.

Bullock shares this view and emphasized another important service the shelter offers occupants is resources to improve their lives. The shelter refers its guests to service providers that provide options for employment, counseling, and health services, among other things.

“Anyone is a paycheck away from being homeless. We have two triple Masters here; some of these guys had amazing lives. Life is just hard sometimes,” said Bullock.

The shelter will close its doors today as the winter shelter season comes to an end and will celebrate another successful year with a large dinner for volunteers, supporters and staff. -30-


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