Ruben Ramon lost his powder painting job at Haban Manufacturing when the plant shut down in 1995. He worked a series of temporary jobs to make ends meet, but even those dried up in 2012, and he became homeless.
He admits his pride got the best of him. He refused to ask his friends, or his family for help. He also didn’t want to stay at the Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization (HALO), which offers homeless assistance to people seeking a long-term solution to homelessness.
“They got like rules at HALO,” Ruben said. “You have to get out at a certain time, you can’t lay down when you want, and you have to go to bed at a certain time. I’m a 57-year-old man and you are going to tell me when I have to go to sleep? I’m not a child.”
So he decided to stay outside until it got too cold.
Depressed, lonely, and tired, Ruben knocked on the doors of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 614 Main St., on a December morning – hours before it was supposed to open as a daytime drop-in shelter – and he became the first guest at the Hospitality Center’s nighttime emergency shelter.
Ruben and a volunteer at the Hospitality Center tell his story:
Rev. Kevin Stewart, who runs the Hospitality Center, said the overnight emergency shelter grew out of a need the community had, not a strategic direction or want. The need was sporadic at first for the emergency night shelter, so the Hospitality Center had its doors open only if it got below a certain temperature. This season, it has served 81 unduplicated people, some of whom either did not qualify to stay at HALO, refused to join HALO’s program or couldn’t get access to other homeless shelters in the area.
Stewart’s focus for the Hospitality Center is to meet people where they are – without an agenda or expectation – at a time when there has been a gap in services for people who are homeless.
Because HALO received federal funding, there are certain rules to which they must adhere, like verification of homelessness. Because the Hospitality Center doesn’t receive that same funding, they don’t run background checks on people or require guests to provide an eviction notice.
“HALO has rules while we have guidelines,” Stewart said. “But it’s not the OK Corral at the Hospitality Center.”
If the weather is bad, HALO will not deny people shelter on an emergency basis; they offer emergency shelter services along with long-term programming options. Kevin Cookman, executive director for HALO, said his numbers are down because people are choosing to go to the Hospitality Center.
“Walking through that door means admitting that I can’t take care of myself right now,” Cookman said. “And even worse, I can’t take care of my family, if I’m coming in with my family. That’s tough already. And then, with my government rules, we’ve got to put them through this grilling to prove that they are homeless.”
Because the shelter is federally funded through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Cookman said that HALO has lost the ability to be flexible in whom they can accept. The federal funding has also become less reliable and this summer they plan on giving up the funding to become more flexible.
“The problem is, if the director of HUD changes or if a certain level changes, the interpretation of the law changes even though the law hasn’t changed and we all have to adjust to that,” Cookman said.
Cookman talks more about HALO’s federal funding requirements in this audio clip:
Still, there have been concerns voiced in the community about the safety issue of having so many people – families, active drug users, people with mental health issues and sex offenders – together at the Hospitality Center. Even though the families were separated into a different area of the church and volunteers patrolled the shelter throughout the night, the shelter cannot legally have certain sex offenders living in close proximity to one another.
Ed Diehl, a city alderman and candidate for mayor, has volunteered at the emergency shelter several times since last summer.
“At least two people should stay awake all night long, somebody can catch a snooze as long as there’s two other people awake,” Diehl said. “But it’s really… there’s never any problems. We walk around, we check the doors, and go through all of the other areas.”
Stewart said he has always kept his focus on safety.
“But my question is, which child of God would you like me to kick outside, out into the cold? Which should I kick out to the curb?” he said.
While the Hospitality Center doesn’t have any families staying there now, it’s not to say they won’t work with families to help them find a temporary solution to get out of the cold, including taking them to HALO, the Women’s Resource Center or finding them a hotel to stay for the night.
“We’re real sensitive to making sure that we are being attentive to families and children needs,” Stewart said. “But we’ve had two families from memory this year.”
For people like Ruben, his experience at the Hospitality Center has been transformative: he now volunteers at the Hospitality Center because, he says, “it makes him whole.”
He’s still unemployed and lives in his sister’s basement. While his situation isn’t ideal, he knows he’s not out on the street.
“God gave me the idea that I need to come and help people,” he said. ”They helped me, so I have a need to help other people.”