Hesed House of Hope, the county’s only homeless shelter, is set to open a month early this year due to the season’s premature dip in temperatures and the area’s rising homeless population.
The shelter, which has housed between one and 18 homeless individuals at once over the years, will open its doors on Friday and remain open through the end of March, volunteer and Board of Director member Susan Hutcherson said.
However, if drastically cold weather and freezing temperatures persist past the shelter’s set close date, Hutcherson said, the board will work to keep the shelter open an additional number of weeks.
In the future, the board anticipates keeping the facility open year-round — a long-term goal that may become a reality as soon as the end of 2014, Hutcherson said.
“People can die from heat exhaustion, too,” she noted.
Hesed House is currently open 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. seven days a week throughout the season, forcing individuals to pass the time during daylight hours at the local library, Christian Ministry or Department of Social Services office.
Every January, the 10-member board calculates a rough estimate of the county’s homeless population by tallying the number of individuals who frequent the shelter and Christian Ministry soup kitchen. Shelter officials also pull statistics from the school system on the area’s number of homeless children.
Hutcherson said every teacher reports how many homeless children they have in their classrooms to their school’s principal.
However, the total is always much lower than the actual homeless population, board members said, since a number of individuals needing shelter stay with friends or family.
While Hesed will accept anyone in need of a place to sleep, it requires each person undergo a breathalyzer and drug test to ensure the safety and comfort of everyone else staying at the facility.
Individuals may also not be intoxicated, board members said.
Oftentimes, parents who drink heavily shy away from the shelter because they know showing up with their children will mean immediate action from DSS.
“We are obligated to call,” Hutcherson said.
Others feel more comfortable abiding by their own rules in their current locations, even if that means living in a tent.
Hutcherson disclosed details about a homeless camp, called a “tent city,” that she said was once located in a wooded area behind the Lincoln Plaza Shopping Center in Lincolnton. The area housed a number of homeless families, she said.
If space allows, volunteers noted they often first direct mothers with children to Amy’s House, a local battered women’s shelter, where facility officials can better cater to their needs and offer an environment safer than Hesed.
In addition to one day extending facility hours to year-round, shelter officials would like to establish a wellness program for those who flock to Hesed and help them rebuild their lives.
Prior to opening Hesed House’s current Lincolnton location on Ann Gaither Court in 2011, the shelter operated for a year inside a house located on McBee Street.
Hutcherson said St. Luke’s Episcopal Church owned the property.
However, the concept of housing local homeless began three years earlier after local community members united and brainstormed ways to both aid the needy population and raise awareness.
The group slept in cardboard boxes one night on the county courthouse lawn to convey their support, Hutcherson said.
It wasn’t long before the idea of a “roving shelter” was born. Through the roving concept, area homeless would sign-in at Christian Ministry each night before being shuttled to a different area church for food and lodging.
Individuals felt a better sense of belonging, Hutcherson said, after the process became less nomadic and more established, offering people one consistent shelter location.
Always in need of volunteers, Hesed holds two volunteer trainings per year. The first one took place earlier this month with nearly 50 trainees, board members said.
The next training is set for 5 p.m. Monday, Hutcherson said.
Lincolnton resident John Dancoff has been lending a helping hand since the shelter’s earliest days and was also one of the courthouse campers, he said.
He volunteers with people from his church, Holy Cross Lutheran in Lincolnton, one of several area churches that assists with making meals, conducting drug tests and other Hesed responsibilities.
“You meet people there that are so similar to you,” Dancoff said. “They’ve just experienced a bad break in their lives — lost a job or going through a divorce.”
He pointed out that at any given time, he or someone he knows could find themselves in the same position as many of the homeless individuals he encounters there.
“We are all just that close,” he said. “It could be any one of us.”
Despite the long hours involved with volunteering, Dancoff wouldn’t trade the experiences and memories he’s acquired over the years, feeling blessed each time he walks away from the shelter.
“You’re worn out,” he said, “but you really feel good that you’ve made a difference.”
Kezia Simonds volunteers with her husband Tom and 24-year-old son Jake Sherrill, who is mentally handicapped, she said.
“It is a wonderful opportunity,” the Lincoln County resident said. “You meet people from all walks of life.”
She believes everyone needs help at one time or another, and so for the last three years, she has been working to meet the needs of people at the shelter, also providing them with additional community resources.
Simonds chuckled to herself as she reflected on the variety of personalities — from both volunteers and occupants — she encounters at the facility.
“We have a very blessed and unique group,” she said. “Everyone contributes so much.”
Simonds considered her time with Hesed House a “humbling and edifying experience.”
For more shelter information, call (704) 732-0175.