The weather forecasters aren’t the only ones keeping a careful watch on overnight temperatures this time of year.
Staff and volunteers with local Catholic outreaches in three metro areas of the Phoenix Diocese do too. There’s an inverse relationship between the overnight lows and their workload.
In Prescott, any time the temperature is 25 degrees or less during the winter months — roughly October to April — there are two inches of snow on the ground or there is a lot of rainfall, the faithful execute Operation Deep Freeze. It’s a cooperative effort through the Quad City Interfaith Council that uses church volunteers and available space at the local Salvation Army to feed and shelter homeless guests overnight. Sacred Heart Parish is among its members.
It’s one of the parish efforts that Sr. Anne Fitzsimons, IBVM, rarely has trouble recruiting volunteers. A simple bulletin notice gets her phone ringing in the parish’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation ministry office.
Support winter outreach to the homeless:
➤ stvincentdepaul.net or (602) 261-6886 to volunteer or donate funds that provide sleeping mats, sheets and indoor warmth nightly
“They respond because it’s a very worthwhile opportunity to do actual hands-on help for people who are homeless,” Sr. Anne said.
Each church remains on call for a week at a time during the winter months. Organizers eye weather patterns and decide by 2 p.m. any given day whether to open the local on-call church for overnight guests. Word spreads at the library, a local day shelter and the Salvation Army.
Up to 30 men at a time respond to the invitation for overnight lodging. Prescott Area Shelter Services cares for the women and children without a home and a local Baptist church offers shelter for others.
“This last month or so, it’s been very, very cold,” Sr. Anne said in early December.
She expected to mobilize parish volunteers the first two nights of the parish’s “on-call” duty Dec. 6-12. The parish will again be on call Jan. 17-23, 2016. Sacred Heart once stood ready to temporarily house the homeless the entire month of January when Operation Deep Freeze was a smaller affair. The parish has been involved since 2006.
Volunteers provide pre-cooked entrees and side dishes or bring food to prepare in a certified kitchen. They later set up cots and blankets and have a chance to mingle with the guests. They try to offer a little something for breakfast too.
“There’s so much more work that needs to be done, but at least we can help with the charity part,” Sr. Anne said. “The justice part is a little more difficult. We’re working on it.”
A similar situation is going on further south, just blocks from the state capitol. St. Vincent de Paul and the Lodestar Day Resource Center on the Human Services Campus will shelter at least 500 people from the cold through February.
All guests get a sleeping mat and sheet, but both are wearing out from constant use. Some guests camp outside with women and the most vulnerable inside. When it’s 40 degrees or below, or a wind chill makes it feel as such, everyone gets to come inside.
“These are beautiful men and women, beautiful souls. Something’s gone wrong in their lives. Depression sets in,” said Jerry Castro, dining room manager.
Rapid re-housing vouchers have helped 100 guests in recent months, but he said there’s an array of reasons landlords and property managers don’t see them as viable candidates.
St. Vincent de Paul staff and volunteers love them enough to transform the facility’s dining room into a large cabin of sorts by folding and moving 26 tables nightly and nearly 240 chairs plus centerpieces. It’s set up again to serve breakfast the next morning when 600-700 guests file in for breakfast.
Some people experiencing homelessness bear the winter elements. Catholic Charities Community Services staff and volunteers actively search the streets, under bridges and in piles of snow to help. Some face seriously mental illness and aren’t ready for treatment or traditional housing, so Catholic Charities offers tents, tarps, coats, snacks and other life-sustaining items.
The agency recently put a call out for such donations. They’ll be given to the homeless in areas around Cottonwood and Flagstaff.
“With our winter conditions, not everyone is able to reach the shelters,” said Sandi Flores, Flagstaff site director for Catholic Charities. She noted that the snow sometimes comes quicker than those who are homeless realize and it’s safer to stay put than trek out to a bus line toward a brick-and-mortar shelter.
“When the weather’s good, we scour the areas so when the [bad] weather comes, we know where people most recently were,” Flores said.
Catholic Charities found some people during the last snowstorm and offered two nights at a hotel plus referral information to local shelters. Flores said they’re still camping and awaiting housing placement, but will seek traditional shelter when weather becomes critical.
No one reached a man in time earlier this month. The body of a transient man was found in a vacant lot, with cold weather a likely factor in his death, the Verde Independent reported Dec. 1.
“Catholic social teaching tells us to respect the dignity of each individual,” Flores said. She sees her work as an extension of that.