February 21, 2020

Volunteers learn homeless ‘are not a stereotype’ at New Albany shelter

Dee Traub of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany, standing, shares in conversation as Mark Russell, second from left, and two other guests enjoy a hot meal at the White Flag shelter in New Albany on Feb. 7. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Dee Traub of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany, standing, shares in conversation as Mark Russell, second from left, and two other guests enjoy a hot meal at the White Flag shelter in New Albany on Feb. 7. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

NEW ALBANY—It’s a cold February night in New Albany, with the temperature hovering near 30 degrees and a windchill of about 20. But it’s warm in the Salvation Army gym where more than 20 people enjoy a warm meal and friendly banter.

“We go back and forth like you do with anyone,” says Peggy Richards, one of four members present from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany.

The group spans the demographic gamut—men, women, young and not-so-young. Some work full- or part-time jobs. Some are veterans. Some are retired, and some are trying to find jobs.

One other difference is that four are volunteers. The others are seeking shelter from the cold, with nowhere else to turn.

They’re gathered at the Homeless Coalition of Southern Indiana’s (HCSI) White Flag homeless shelter. It fills a gap in the need for shelter from Nov. 15 through April 15 when nighttime temperatures dip below 35 degrees.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help, along with St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities in New Albany, is one of several parishes that help provide volunteers for the shelter. (Related: Here’s how you can help New Albany’s White Flag program)

Katelyn Stumler coordinates Our Lady of Perpetual Help volunteers with her husband Craig.

“It’s a powerful experience to know I’m in some way saving people’s lives by not letting them sleep in the cold,” she says.

A ‘distinctive’ program

Each January, “point-in-time” (PIT) counts of those living on the streets are conducted around the state. The 2019 PIT count for Clark, Floyd and four other counties was 288.

But that number is deceptive. According to the HCSI website, “private developers multiply the Point-in-Time count by five when assessing a community’s true number of individuals experiencing homelessness.”

To address the needs of those lacking shelter in the New Albany area, a study of local resources for the homeless was conducted in 2013. It resulted in a document called “Vision 2025: A Strategic Plan to End Homelessness in Clark and Floyd Counties.”

Mark Casper, agency director for St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities in New Albany, served on a planning committee for the study. The committee’s goal, he says, “was to look at the data [collected], identify the gaps [in resources] and create a new organization to oversee implementation of the recommendations” in the document.

HCSI was created as the overseeing organization. White Flag is one of the services it developed, with a focus on filling the gap of shelter availability on dangerously cold nights.

“White Flag” is a term used nationally by homeless shelters. To protect as many lives as possible on frigid nights, a white flag is placed near a shelter’s entrance indicating they will accept those in need beyond their regular capacity.

The program in New Albany, however, “is a bit distinctive,” explains Dr. Melissa Fry, who led the 2013 study. “In our part of southern Indiana, we have only one general-population homeless shelter serving a 14-county region. That shelter is consistently overcrowded. This means they don’t have any room to expand capacity for White Flag nights.”

So HCSI created a volunteer-based program similar to one in Chicago that rotates the shelter location among participating churches.

The New Albany program launched in the fall of 2016 using the gym—complete with a kitchen and showers—donated by the local Salvation Army.

From Nov. 15 through April 15, White Flag conditions are announced when temperatures are forecast below 35 degrees for four consecutive hours between 7 p.m.-7 a.m. On those nights, volunteers staff the shelter to provide air mattresses and linens, a hot meal, breakfast and a sack lunch for the guests.

HCSI, a non-faith-based organization, recruited organizations, parishes and other congregations to adopt one or more nights each month to provide three shifts of volunteers if White Flag conditions are announced.

According to Casper, with five parishes, St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities volunteers and HCSI board members with ties to

St. Elizabeth, there are now “10 or 11 nights covered with ties to the Catholic Church.”

‘These people aren’t a stereotype’

Katelyn says Craig was one of the first volunteers for the program after it launched.

“My personal response was I thought it was a great cause, and I was glad my husband was involved. But it was December, which is super busy for me preparing the Christmas liturgy,” says Katelyn, director of liturgical music ministries for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish.

But one night when White Flag conditions were called, Craig needed someone to cover his shift for two hours.

“Begrudgingly, I said I’d do it,” Katelyn admits. “It was an incredible experience. … That was the spark that lit the flame of my personal involvement and dedication to this cause.”

Stumler is not alone in finding the service transformative.

“I’ve heard a number of parishioners talk about how they have really changed the way they view homelessness,” says Mary Pettit, White Flag coordinator for St. Mary Parish in New Albany. “They’ve learned that these people aren’t a stereotype—they’re actual people struggling with different issues that put them in this position. And many of homeless are actually working.”

Mark Russell is one example.

The Criterion spoke with him as he enjoyed a hot cup of coffee at the White Flag shelter on Feb. 7.

Russell, 32, aged out of foster care and has spent the last 13 years “on and off the streets.” He works part time as a chef at a local restaurant. But the pay is not enough to afford housing, and he has struggled to find additional work.

“I understand the need to help [people] overseas,” says Russell. “But there are people right here in need. There are several veterans on the street, and that’s just not right. …

“People look at the homeless as lazy, drug addicts or bums. It’s true that some on the streets want to be there. But for some, things in their life just didn’t work out.”

This was true for a couple Pettit encountered. She met them at a Christmas day open house for the homeless her parish started two years ago, since “everything is closed that day and they have nowhere to get out of the cold.”

The woman had been in a devastating accident that resulted in a broken spine and injuries to internal organs. The man quit his job to care for her. Medical bills piled up, and they could no longer afford housing.

“You see how one incident in life put them in a situation where they had no control on where they lived,” says Pettit. “It makes you think how, but for the grace of God, that could be me.”

‘I see God at work here’

Helping those in need is “service to God that we’re all called to do,” says Larry Richards, who has volunteered for White Flag with his wife Peggy since its inception.

Pettit agrees.

“Putting your faith in action makes you appreciate the compassionate Christ,” she says. “You just know that each and every one of us is a gift, and each person we encounter is someone’s daughter or son. Theology becomes actually your life, not just an idea.”

But eradicating homelessness “is not a quick fix. It’s not something that will go away overnight,” says Stumler. “We really need to keep this [shelter] open to provide a safe place for people to get a good night’s sleep in a warm place.”

The numbers prove the need. From Nov. 15, 2019, through Feb. 6, the White Flag shelter was open 29 nights and had a total of 237 visits from 69 unique guests. Since its inception, the shelter has provided 197 nights of respite from the cold, adding up to 1,716 visits from 240 individual guests, and averaging 20 guests per night.

But more help is needed.

“We still have 22 un-adopted nights for the rest of this season,” says Celeste Cook, White Flag senior site captain. She is one of three hired staff who work from 6:30 p.m.-7:30 a.m. to handle situations should they arise.

“We’re here to keep everything safe and happy for everyone,” she says. “We like to give our volunteers a good experience so they keep coming back, and we want our guests to have a good experience so they feel safe and comfortable when they’re here.”

Russell expresses his gratitude for the shelter and its volunteers.

“I always say God will make a way and give you what you need when you need it,” he says. “Here, I get a warm bed, a good meal, the volunteers are all nice and friendly. … I see God at work here.”

(For more information about New Albany’s White Flag program or to volunteer or donate, go to www.soinhomeless.org.)

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