There is a curious air of expectancy in the big, empty room as a cheery middle-aged man in casual clothes bustles around setting out plates, silverware, and plastic cups on several long tables. Soon, people start to drift in, stopping to enter their names on a sign-in sheet. Several people hurry in with large trays of hot food, and the room slowly fills. Soon, dinner is pronounced ready and more than a dozen people gather around the tables, exchanging relaxed greetings.
Thus begins another night at the Temple Solel emergency homeless shelter, one of more than 60 temporary shelter sites in the Interfaith Shelter Network’s Rotational Shelter Program. Interfaith Shelter Network – or simply ISN – provides emergency shelter and meals for more than 250 individuals and families each winter.
ISN’s shelters are located throughout the county, allowing people to be sheltered within the areas they call home. It is one of the few emergency shelter programs to take families with children. Adults work with case managers to access services, find jobs and affordable housing. Children attend their regular schools while their families are in the program.
The ‘Network’ in ISN includes more than 200 local congregations of all faiths, who provide support and services for ISN’s programs. For the Rotational Shelter Program, congregations participate by providing a shelter site for 2 -4 weeks or contributing food and other support services to the hosting congregation.
Hundreds of volunteers share the effort of running the shelters every year. Each shelter has a coordinator who oversees all services and activities, and two volunteers who stay overnight with the guests to provide a presence should something happen that needs immediate attention.
“You could say that ISN is community activism at its best,” says ISN executive director Trisha Brereton. “Our mission is to provide organizational support for the community to help some of its most needy members.”
ISN is a network of people of many diverse beliefs, but all of its’ volunteers are unified by one common attribute: they believe that giving back is a human responsibility. Currently, there are three temples involved in the program, Temple Solel, Adat Shalom, and Congregation Bethel.
“We’ve been involved in the program for twenty-five years now,” says Judy Bricker, Temple Solel administrator. “Our goal is to create a warm and welcoming place for people who are out in the cold due to loss of their homes. We have chosen the darkest time of the year for our rotation – the last two weeks of December – to bring light into the lives of those most in need of uplifting.”
Several years ago, as part of his preparations for his Bar Mitzvah, Ryan Zickwolff chose to spend one night with his family as shelter hosts during Temple Solel’s rotation. The experience was so enriching that the family has volunteered each year since, and plans to return during the 2016 rotation, as well.
“We need to be appreciative for what we have because it can be gone in the blink of an eye,” Ryan told the crowd of 200 attending his Bar Mitzvah. By getting to know the shelter guests that night, Ryan learned many things – that we are not so different, that anyone can be down on their luck and that they deserve a second chance to heal their lives.
As a reformed temple, Temple Solel takes seriously the principle of tikkun olam (literally, world repair). The principle of tikkum olam states that only by participating in righting the wrongs of their world through tzedakah (justice and righteousness) and g’milut hasadim (acts of loving kindness) will the world be cleaned of injustice and evil.
“Our involvement in the shelter program was so important to us that when the congregation relocated in 2006 to new facilities, we made sure to build showers simply for this program. Before that, we had to take our guests to another location to shower, because our old facility didn’t have showers,” Bricker relates.
Many of ISN’s guests have expressed their gratitude for the relaxed atmosphere and easy acceptance they feel from shelter volunteers. “They sat down to dinner with us family-style. I didn’t feel like they looked down on me for being homeless. I started to get a little hopeful,” says shelter guest Sara H.
The majority of people who go through the Rotational Shelter Program leave with more stable housing, increased incomes and improved prospects. Better yet, they have experienced the caring support of many dedicated volunteers. Some even return to volunteer – to pay-it-forward – to others who are where they once were.
More About the Program
ISN’s Rotational Shelter Program divides the County into 7 geographic areas. Each area has several congregations that donate space for a two or four-week period, to provide shelter for up to 12 homeless people at a time.
The program not only provides a place to sleep, showers and laundry facilities, it also provides a family-style dinner each night prepared and served by volunteers from contributing churches and synagogues. Each congregation raises money to meet their expenses. Food is donated by the volunteers who prepare and serve meals.
Shelter guests agree to strict rules. No drugs, alcohol or weapons are permitted. Each guest is responsible for his own equipment, and they all share responsibility for keeping the facility clean. They must be out of the shelter not later than 7:00 AM, and return at 5:00 PM weekdays. Most spend their day working or looking for jobs. ISN provides bus passes or gasoline money to aid in the job search and take children to school.