Catholics helping people get out of the cold

Lisa Johnston |

The snow and a "polar vortex" brought the St. Louis area to a standstill in the past week, but Catholic groups kept on moving in their efforts to help people stay out of the cold.

At St. Patrick Center, it's business as usual, helping people who are homeless to get off the streets and out of the winter weather.

"Being part of the city's continuum of care, we're doing what we do every day of the year," said Kelly Peach, senior director of communications at St. Patrick Center.

Surprisingly, the center's welcome center did not receive any new clients on Monday, Jan. 6, when a cold, dense air known as a "polar vortex" made its way into the St. Louis area, following a dumping of nearly a foot of snow Jan. 5. Temperatures dipped below zero throughout most of St. Louis.

The center's Shamrock Club, a day treatment center for homeless individuals struggling with mental illness and/or substance abuse, however, has been opening up earlier and closing later for its clients the past few days, noted Peach. Hot meals continue to be provided daily and the center's mobile outreach provides basic necessities and builds relationships with homeless individuals.

The city has a warming center, which has been operating on a 24-hour schedule,at 12th Street and Park Avenue. That's one place where Karen Wallensak, executive director of Catholic Charities Community Services, believes many people are going to get out of the cold.

"Both the city and the county have winter outreach plans when the weather gets to a certain temperature," she said. "The Housing Resource Center helps people get into shelter, and we work with both the city and county. Sometimes that means getting them a cab to get there. We follow the city and county's plan so that every shelter is aware of what's going on, and so that we work together to make sure people are safe."

When the temperature gets cold, Wallensak said that people who are homeless and have no desire to receive assistance will seek out temporary warming centers to get the relief they need. "They don't want to go through an intake process for a variety of reasons -- they want to be left alone. So they will go to a warming center and then get the heck out."

Utility assistance

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul already is thinking ahead to how people might suffer the lingering effects of the cold weather. Ryan Carney, director of Vincetian programs for the society, noted that the organization is making an emergency appeal to provide utility assistance to those in need.

While utilities offer payment assistance programs, the increased bill can become an extra struggle for people barely making it, said Carney. "A lot of times, people will keep their heat running through this weather, and then the Cold Weather Rule expires, and they can't afford their bill -- and it's shut off," he said. "We're looking ahead to what could be a big mess."

The Cold Weather Rule is a state initiative that prohibits the disconnection of utilities between Nov. 1 and March 1 when the temperature is forecast to drop below 32 degrees for the following 24 hours.

The society provides about $2 million in utility assistance a year, via the parish conferences and the main office.

Winter outreaches

St. Francis Xavier (College Church) Parish in Midtown runs the Xavier Winter Inn Mission to extend hospitality, fellowship and shelter to homeless people on cold winter nights. Several blocks north, Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish in the Jeff Vanderlou neighborhood seeks to extend a welcome and help homeless people stay warm. Both outreaches are run by parish volunteers.

Room at the Inn in Bridgeton, sponsored by the Sisters of Divine Providence, is a temporary emergency shelter for homeless women and families that serves about 200 people per year. It partners with some 60 churches, about a third to half of which are Catholic parishes, to provide food fellowship and a place to stay for clients each evening.

Program Director Valorie Ferlis said she was grateful knowing the clients are warm and safe during recent dangerously cold weather. The aim is to provide 30 days of shelter and to find alternative housing for clients as they work on issues that led them to become homeless, Ferlis said.

At Peter and Paul Community Services, the community response has been "overwhelming" from volunteers, businesses and others who want to help with food, donations of blankets and warm clothing and other cold-weather necessities.

"We're getting lots of inquiries from individuals who are seeking shelter, and we're directing them to some of the larger overflow shelters, which are about five blocks from here," said shelter director Tom Burnham.

The ecumenical organization, which provides services to homeless individuals, has a shelter in at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Soulard. The emergency shelter has 60 beds, with an additional 10 beds for men in a transitional program, and usually is at capacity.

Burnham said they've been scrambling a bit in the last few days, as some volunteers -- some come from as far away as St. Charles -- have been stuck in the snow themselves. "We've had a number of new volunteers, too. People are sensitive to the circumstances and want to make themselves available," he said.

A couple of groups who help with the regular meals program also had to cancel because of the weather, but other volunteers and staff have stepped in to keep the program running seamlessly.

How to help

Society of St. Vincent De Paul utility assistance program, (314) 881-6035

Peter and Paul Community Services, (314) 588-7111

St. Patrick Center, (314) 802-0700

Room at the Inn, (314) 209-9198 

Catholic Charities
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