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Laurel Winter Shelter embraces cold, provides warmth to homeless

"We're looking to really make meaningful changes in their lives to build self sufficiency."

Laurel Winter Shelter coordinator Rod Barr and his volunteers weren't defeated by snowfall and freezing temperatures as they cranked the heat, stocked the pantry and opened their doors to the homeless for a week at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Highland.

As participants of the Laurel Winter Shelter program, formerly known as Winter Haven, Barr said the congregation provided single homeless men and women with a warm place to sleep, hot meals, showers and laundry services.

Laurel cold weather shelters have been in place nearly 20 years, and Winter Haven transformed into the Laurel Winter Shelter in 2013 after its board of directors retired.

This year, the organization introduced seven new board members, including Barr, with 18 congregations participating in the shelter program from November through March.

"It has really been an enormous help this year that we have a board of directors," Barr said. "I got a lot of help from people on the board of directors picking up [homeless] people in Laurel."

During the week in January that Mt. Zion hosted the shelter, a bus pulled into Laurel's Elizabeth House parking lot around 6:20 p.m. each day, where 30 homeless guests — 21 men and nine women — boarded with their belongings. Barr said guests arrived at Mt. Zion shortly after, registering with volunteers through the intake process provided by Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services, a nonprofit that assists homeless and low-income individuals and families.

"We help sign up the clients for the shelter and we also do weekly outreach to the shelter sites," said LARS Director of Emergency Services Stephanie Guzman. "We can connect with the clients staying there and encourage them to come to LARS to see a case manager, who can help them with their resources that they may benefit from. We're looking to really make meaningful changes in their lives to build self sufficiency."

Walking into Mt. Zion's fellowship hall, large dividers created two sections in the room. In one-third of the hall, a TV sat by three long tables, where guests enjoyed bowls of hot soup.

Aluminum-framed cots were spread across the other side of the room for the men's sleeping quarters, equipped with pillows, blankets and sheets. Women were greeted with the same services upstairs, where cushioned mats laid along the hallway walls of a Sunday school room.

After dinner, Barr said guests were free to take showers, watch TV and enjoy each other's company before "lights out" at 10 p.m. An overnight crew of four volunteers then rotated shifts throughout the evening, he said. The next morning, everyone was taken back to Elizabeth House until that evening.

Things operated a little differently this season, Barr said, when his team was met with an unusual challenge: Winter Storm Jonas. Bringing snowfall upward of 30 inches, Mt. Zion's volunteers extended their week of shelter that began Jan. 18, giving their homeless guests warmth all day throughout the long weekend and into the afternoon of Jan. 26.

"Keeping them in was difficult because we just hadn't planned for [volunteers] to do that," Barr said. "So many people work and they couldn't be there during the day, but they could come and stay overnight."

The coordinator explained that the harsh snowstorm left him, volunteers and guests with nowhere to go, causing "a lot of excitement and agitation." But overall, everyone's extended stay was a success.

"I was lucky to have a few people with me over the weekend," Barr said. "This is the third time in four years that we have kept the guests in the church all day long for multiple days. Two of the last four years, I've been either frozen in or snowed in because somebody has to be there with them."

Barr said this dedication toward helping people who are homeless helps lead to permanent housing.

The Rev. Kevin McGhee, of Bethany Community Church in Laurel, agreed, explaining that daytime programming is also available to those who are homeless through the organization New Day.

"Over the last couple of years, because LARS, New Day and the local congregations are working together, some of our longest-term chronically homeless individuals have now been placed," McGhee said. "That's a very positive note."

McGhee said he's begun to see younger individuals in the shelters.

"In the early days of the shelter, it was all mostly older white males," he said. "Now, we have younger folks."

Barr said the Laurel Winter Shelter Board is seeking out other volunteers for the current and future seasons.

"We're definitely looking for support from any group that has a facility and an interest in doing this," Barr said. "I think this is what we as Christians, or as any religious people, are called to do. All of the religions have the message to take care of those in need and those who are less fortunate than you."

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