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It was with a heavy heart Monday night that Rev. Kevin Stewart told a group at the Hospitality Center that as of this weekend, he can no longer offer overnight accommodations.
Saturday night will be the last night the Hospitality Center will open its doors to neighbors who need overnight shelter. The Center is housed at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 614 Main Street.
The hot-meal program and day hours will continue.
“We have capacity issues at the church, and the need continues to rise as evidenced by serving 73 individuals – including 2 families – so far this winter,” he said in a phone interview Monday afternoon. “As much as I dream about being open 24/7 because someone always needs a sandwich and/or a place to stay, we just aren’t capable of doing that now.”
Stewart said there was a group of about 25 – about the nightly average – present when he made his announcement. It was not lost on anyone that this unexpected and unwelcome change comes during the coldest weather of the season so far.
The Hospitality Center operates out of the fellowship room at St. Luke’s and offers the area’s largest free, hot-meal program. While the majority of those who use the Center to get out of the cold are men, some women and children and families have needed emergency shelter.
Stewart does his best to accommodate everyone who needs the Hospitality Center – women on the stage behind a curtain and families in the choir room – but the hard truth is that despite emergency shelters being in short supply, St. Luke’s just wasn’t built as a long-term solution for the area’s homeless population.
Additionally, Stewart said his core group of 15 volunteers is spread too thin and not trained to supervise and oversee the myriad needs in a homeless shelter.
“The need is only increasing, and I have a core group of volunteers for the shelter of only 15 people trying to respond to this growing needs with extended hours and overnights,” he added. “I’ve lost track of the number of nights we’ve been open; it’s been at least since Nov. 4.”
Stewart is not giving up on his vision of establishing a shelter, though.
“Let me be clear: We are not giving up on this shelter. That’s not happening,” he declared. “But I think what is happening is my role overnight has switched from service-provider to advocate, to be a voice for those who have no voice, to stand with those with whom it is difficult to stand at times.”
While Stewart is determined in his mission to increase shelter availability, he is already dreading the calls he knows will come Sunday from people who know someone who needs the Hospitality Center.
“Our hearts are breaking, but we’re doing everything we can this week to find people shelter and make plans, but what do I tell people when it’s cold Sunday morning, and we can’t be here?” he said. “What happens Sunday morning? We got a call at 12:30 (Monday) saying someone is homeless and needs a place to stay. Tonight, that person comes here, but what now do I tell people?”