On the first night of the most recent cold snap, Feb. 2, Sacred Heart Parish in Springfield wanted to find a way to help the most vulnerable in the community. The wind chill was expected to hover near zero, which would make it a difficult time for anyone caught outside. Service providers to the area’s homeless population worked quickly to bring vulnerable folks inside, including Community Partnership of the Ozarks, which picked up the first vanload of homeless men from the streets and various day warming centers. These men would have spent the night in the freezing rain, but instead, they were welcomed into the Claret Winter Shelter for the Homeless, and God’s loving presence, at Sacred Heart Parish.
The men were greeted by Claretian Fr. Ray Smith, CMF, pastor. Volunteers were organized by the parish staff and Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri (CCSOMO). In return, the men showed their gratitude that the shelter opened five days ahead of the initial target date of Feb. 7.
For days, the nation’s meteorologists had warned about the incoming winter storm. By Tue., Feb. 1, it was evident the storm would likely shut down schools and many businesses. At CCSOMO, efforts were well underway to implement severe weather plans, along with community partners. These plans ensure essential CCSOMO operations continue to support vulnerable populations, especially services for the homeless, which includes CCSOMO’s Rancho Temporary Emergency Shelter for Homeless Families and Medical Respite for Women; and its Noncongregant Shelter for homeless persons quarantining due to, or recovering from COVID. Despite these preparations and many more, Springfield city leaders estimated that when the storm arrived, between 175 to 200 people would still be sleeping on the street. Worse, a quick survey of the available beds at established winter shelters for the homeless revealed a significant shortfall, one that would leave many homeless out in the cold.
It was known at CCSOMO that the new winter shelter at Sacred Heart Parish was slated to open on Feb. 7—after the storm. Catholic Charities and others wanted to help accelerate the plan.
“But what if Sacred Heart had what it needed to open,” a CCSOMO representative asked the Sacred Heart Parish office. “Could the shelter open early?” A series of phone calls ensued to discover the practicality of readying the parish hall and coordinating efforts. Off-campus at a nearby retreat, Fr. Smith stepped away long enough to approve the effort.
“How can we not do this?” he asked. The community rallied to respond.
The volunteer outreach coordinator at Claret Winter Shelter is Marianne Jones of Springfield. She was excited to open early but informed Catholic Charities that the key to opening early was finding enough volunteers to staff the shelter around the clock.
The volunteers would also need to be trained within 24 hours; would need to be willing to work overnight shifts, and drive on snow and ice. Fortunately, none of those challenges proved insurmountable. “It’s a miracle,” Fr. Smith said of the accelerated opening.
MANY MIRACLES OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS
On the first and worst night, 21 men were able to sleep comfortably in the re-purposed parish hall. At daylight, with heavy snow and ice blanketing the area, the men who are typically accustomed to leaving an overnight shelter at daybreak were permitted to stay on by Fr. Smith.
“We did not plan on staying open throughout the day, but this is an exceptional situation,” said Fr. Smith. “We cannot take men in at night and then put them out into a storm. I wanted them here.” Evidently, the accommodations were adequate as only one man walked out into ongoing heavy snowfall. He returned later the same day with more homeless men who had not been found the previous night despite hours of searching. Father Smith was pleased.
“My hope is the guests who come to us will know they haven’t been forgotten,” Fr. Smith said, “and that the community has come together to remind them that they are cared for, and they are loved by God and us.”
That love formed as a result of a shared desire of the community to open a new shelter earlier than planned.
“God provides,” Fr. Smith said.
Much of the provisioning for the shelter occurred prior to the storm with CCSOMO, Mercy, and Cox Hospital provided cots, sheets, and supplies. Saint Joseph Catholic Academy provided snacks, for example, as did others.
CCSOMO staff even made a special trip over icy roads to deliver additional cots, blankets, and food. No one at the shelter would go without food and warmth. All of these actions, and more, attributed to the successful opening. “I pray our guests will be comfortable but also a little flexible,” Fr. Smith said. “This is our first time doing this.” “It’s fascinating to think when we start a new venture, we never say that it’s the ‘first annual’ this or that,” Fr. Smith said. “It’s not until the second year, we will call it the ‘second annual,’ and then we will look back at that first moment and see how special it was. Today, we stand on that first moment and we look forward to many more.”