HONESDALE, PA — As cold as it was last week (on several nights the temperature fell to minus numbers), Rev. Edward Erb of Grace Episcopal Church worries about the homeless people he knows who spend their days—and sometimes nights—living on the streets and in the public places of Honesdale, or surviving by depending on the kindness of strangers.
On the coldest of winter nights, when the temperature or wind chill drops to zero and these vulnerable people need a warm, safe place to sleep, Grace Church opens the doors of its parish house as a shelter at 7 p.m. Volunteers put out a hot meal—usually soup, made by some member of the church’s congregation or some other generous home cook from the community.
“Food, and other things we need, just show up on our doorstep,” Fr. Erb remarked. On Wednesday, two local businesses each drop off a cardboard box brimming with loaves of bread. These will be double wrapped and frozen for consumption another day.
The menu this night is chicken-vegetable soup, bread and butter, and some cupcakes contributed by the church’s cub scout troop. There’s always hot tea or coffee. In the morning, before being encouraged to leave by 7 a.m., overnight guests will be served breakfast.
Meals are served at a big square table at one end of the large parish hall. At the other end of the room, several cots are set up, waiting for occupants. Off to the side, there’s a TV with two comfortable chairs parked in front of it.
Fr. Erb and the night’s two volunteers wait for their guests to arrive. Tonight only one fellow comes and he does not spend the night.
John, as we’ll call him, a man of 77 years, arrives for a hot meal and some company. He shares his story of how he once had one of Wayne County’s coldest winter jobs—harvesting ice on a large lake as the winter winds whipped across the frozen surface. When he’s ready to go, Fr. Erb sends him off with a container of soup, a loaf of bread and a pie for John’s disabled wife, who’s waiting at home for him.
Fr. Erb concedes that when it gets this cold he wonders where the homeless he knows are sleeping. “Maybe they’re huddled in the foundation of an old building or inside a dilapidated old barn,” he says. But why does he think they don’t come to Grace Church for the night? “Often it’s a matter of pride, or of embarrassment,” he says. “Or maybe they think that because we’re a church we’re going to preach to them, or try to convert them. But that’s not what we’re about.”
While he admits that many church members and community members pitch in to help make the shelter program happen, “It’s not really so hard to do this,” he adds. “The building has to be heated, the electricity is on, why not use this space for people who need it?” he asks. This was exactly the conversation he and his wife, Susan, were having three years ago when the idea for the shelter came up. They knew about similar shelters in the Lehigh Valley, and to them, it just seemed like the right thing to do. They started with a few fold-out cots and some sleeping bags. Since then, they’ve accumulated a nice supply of other materials.
Everyone who comes gets a small pre-packed plastic bag with a bar of soap, a tooth brush and paste. There’s a tall storage shelf with pillows and towels and other necessary supplies.
In the big open room, there’s place for men on one side and women on the other, with a row of chairs and tables down the middle. Lights are turned out at 10 p.m., but Fr. Erb remarks how people who spend their days wandering the streets or going from one warm place to another to sit and get warm, are usually tired and ready for sleep.
Fr. Erb works with other agencies and organizations in town to help the homeless. Partners in this community-wide safety net also include the county’s emergency services department, the Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services, the Area Agency on Aging, Victims’ Intervention Program, the borough’s police department, Wayne Memorial Hospital’s emergency room and security staff, Trehab and other social service organizations. Anyone who needs shelter, or anyone who knows someone who needs shelter can call any of these agencies or organizations. Fr. Erb also freely gives out his phone number, 570/241-2685.
By week’s end, just two homeless people had come to Grace Church to spend the night, which concerns Fr. Erb because he knows there are other people out there who need shelter.
Caring for others, he says, “is what we’re called to do.” And then he adds, “You know it’s not so hard for someone to lose a job, or lose their house,” he observed. “It’s the idea that there but for the grace of God, go I.”