Faith communities bring back the Winter Nights program to give homeless a hand up

Faith communities bring back the Winter Nights program to give homeless a hand up

Faith communities bring back the Winter Nights program to give homeless a hand up
After the pandemic drastically limited the program in 2020, a reinvented, fully compliant program is back on track for 2021. (David Scholz photo)

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY, CA (Oct. 14, 2021) — With crisp conditions more reminiscent of fall descending on the area, families like Marianna and Princeson and their two children relish having a place to call home as part of Winter Nights.

They are among a handful of clients at the Walnut Creek Evangelical Friends Church as Winter Nights enters its 18th season of serving homeless families.

A year after a global pandemic all but scuttled the sheltering efforts of the nonprofit, houses of worship around Central Contra Costa County are again joining forces to help Winter Nights restore a sense of normalcy for its clients.

“It beats having my children living in a car,” said Marianna.

Her partner echoed the sentiment.

“I love it,’’ he said of the security that having a roof overhead provides.

Expanding to more locations

As the new shelter season kicked off in late September, members of Grace Episcopal Church in Martinez provided co-hosting support as Evangelical Friends Church housed three families representing 11 clients.

With Winter Nights moving into larger locations this season, the numbers being helped will increase to as many as six families and possibly 18-20 clients in accordance with county Health Department guidelines for congregate living and shelters.

This is a significant change from the scaled-down 2020-’21 edition of Winter Nights. The program could only accommodate four families per week at seven locations last year, as Winter Nights reinvented its offerings in response to restrictions imposed by local health officials.

This season, Winter Nights executive director Bill Shaw said more than 18 houses of worship are back on board serving in host roles.

Another 30-plus faith communities are contributing in co-hosting capacities by providing food, meal preparation, and volunteer support for daily breakfast, lunch and dinner service as well as tutoring, games and crafts to keep the youngsters engaged.

A complicated operation

Running through June 6, 2022, the new season means a return to some sense of normalcy and the level of programming that Shaw is accustomed to offering. This includes the opportunity to once again use volunteers – all fully vaccinated. First and foremost, the volunteers provide warm and welcoming smiles to the families of various sizes who will be guests for a week at a time.

While the churches and houses of worship could not provide physical accommodations last season, Shaw lauded the great numbers that stepped up to assist Winter Nights in equally vital roles.

“They made it work,” he said of generous support and gifts in-kind that emerged from various circles, such as providing a week’s worth of meals or games and crafts that the Winter Nights’ staff needed to press on doing the daily heavy lifting.

Shaw noted that the past year’s trials and tribulations are shaping current Winter Nights’ efforts, as everyone grasps what is involved in the day-to-day and week-to-week operations. He cited the extensive training of staff and volunteers regarding food preparation and cleaning of the facilities. In the past, he said, such issues were taken for granted and just seemed to get done with little forethought.

Providing a path forward

In being accepted into the Winter Nights shelter program, clients agree to engage in a process that includes receiving employment and housing services.

“It’s hand helping up, not hand out,’’ Marianna said of the support they are receiving.

And the person providing guidance is no stranger to what the clients are going through. Program manager Melissa Washburn was once sitting across the table receiving Winter Nights assistance.

Eight years later, the mother of two brings an empathetic lending hand to clients as she endeavors to shepherd them through the program toward a brighter future.

For those like Marianna and Princeson, the road won’t suddenly become a bed of roses free of challenges. But for at least the next eight months, the stability of a safe place will set in motion a path to potentially break the cycle of homeless.