Leavenworth’s Interfaith Community of Hope Shelters the Homeless During COVID-19 crisis.
Sister Vickie Perkins with Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth is used to respecting that delicate balance between providing shelter and yet freedom to Leavenworth’s homeless population. Then COVID-19 came along and pushed that balance over a notch or two.
The energetic 78-year-old met the call to action, though, by pulling from the resources that had made Leavenworth Interfaith Community of Hope become a reality six years ago. Those resources are: the town and people of Leavenworth.
When word of the pandemic’s impending threat appeared, the shelter attempted to get in on a CDC online webinar for information. But there were technical difficulties. The shelter contacted the Leavenworth Health Department.
“James Fricke came down right away and just sat with us for probably about an hour and a half telling us ‘Okay, this is how to respond, this is what to do.’ I could not ask for more from our health department,” said Perkins, who is the shelter’s director.
The shelter had to suddenly go from welcoming a community of people who like to come and go – to a policy that would most protect the health safety of the guests it houses – and the staff that serves them.
“We started out with about 18 [at the beginning of the state order] but we’re down to 12 now. Several people got apartments and some people just could not take the constraints,” Perkins said. “People have mental health issues, too. It’s difficult to live this way [restricted movement] so they said they would rather just be out on the street. That’s where they are.”
The facility, however, received a donation of masks recently which the shelter is able to pass out with take-out lunch program every day. “We know that there are people in the community that are hungry. They can just stop by. It’s taking us a little bit of time to get the word out but it’s beginning to get out. People can just stop by and we give them a lunch. A lot of them are out on the street and don’t have any kind of protection,” Perkins said. The lunch giveaway is every day at noon but they also try to coordinate with other churches who are providing free community meals.
The issue is, though, that many of the churches weren’t doing community meals inside so if meals are provided, those meals that were customarily held inside – are now generally take-out meals. A few churches suspended the meals for the time-being.
The stay-at-home order also effected the staff at the shelter. To protect other vulnerable people at their convents, Sister Vickie and Sister Pat Johannsen, who work at the shelter, no longer go back to their local convents at night but, rather, are staying with one of the other shelter workers.
“It’s worked so far. We’ve all been healthy. We haven’t had anybody here get sick. We have been quarantined for, I think it’s six weeks,” Perkins said.
The shelter is normally open 7 a.m. to 3 pm. and then closed 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. “Then we are opened for the night 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. – but, now, we’re open 24 hours a day because we didn’t want them out roaming the streets while this virus was going around,” she said. The shelter was able to act very quickly because they are small. “When you’re small, you can do that.”
“They (guests) are literally in this one room all day, which is difficult for them, but it’s kept them safe,” she said. But, she added that they did work with the health department to allow for being outside the shelter 15 minutes on the grounds every hour and then to sign out for two 30-minute walks per day along specific outdoor spaces.
It’s hard to keep the guests occupied, Perkins said. One man liked to read but books could not be checked out of the library. They were able to acquired a Kindle for him so he could read books. Another volunteer came in to provide some chair exercises. Many guests take part in the cleaning and maintenance tasks for the building.
There are also five garden plots on the grounds and a shed is being constructed. The guests enjoy working on these projects as well.
“We have worked very closely with the health department and they have been fantastic. They have been just wonderful in telling us what’s safe to do and what’s not – and helping us through with everything,” Perkins said.
Normally, Perkins said, a person might come one night, then not another night – maybe stay with a friend – then come another night.
“But none of that can happen now. If you leave here now – during the virus – you can’t come back- because we’re trying to keep everybody safe. We can’t guarantee we can do that – we can’t guarantee it anyway – but we’re doing everything we can to make it happen,” Perkins said.
So, no new intakes right now, she said.
“It’s killing us,” she said. “But it’s the right thing. It’s not fair to the people who have suffered through all of this for us to not do all that.”
Leavenworth Interfaith Community of Hope as a full service homeless shelter is the result of a successful effort that came out of a broad look that Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth took at the needs of the community back in 2010, Perkins said. The SCL could see some needs. The council put together a task force that spent about a year and a half talking to different churches in the community to see what they were doing and what how to get involved with them and other various agencies to help people living in poverty.
“There’s no public transportation up here and so part of what was needed was a way to get people to doctor appointments and food banks and grocery stores. So, we opened what we called ‘Welcome Central’ – it’s an outreach support. We provide transportation, then help people find the services they need. We provide some of them ourselves and coordinate with other people,” Perkins said.
Once that part was opened, it became apparent there was a need for a homeless shelter.
“So, we called churches back together and explained to them that in the first seven months we were open we had talked to 58 people who were homeless,” Perkins said.
“The churches came together just incredibly fast. The first meeting was in September and we opened the shelter in December. There were about 35 churches involved in various ways. People really came together to do this. It was something that had been talked about up here lots. But it wasn’t really until people came together we were able to open the night shelter. Once we got it [the night shelter] open, we realized we also had a need for a day shelter,” she said.
In January, 2014, Welcome Central was opened and by December, 2014, the night shelter was open.
But the two were in two different places and there were stairs involved in one of the buildings where people were going up and down doing laundry all night. Also, many of the volunteers were older citizens.
“There were just issues with the set up. be sitting there talking to somebody about needing help with their utilities and there’d be 20 people sitting there listening. Just didn’t work. So we knew we needed three different entities – we needed to get one building and we needed it on one floor,” said Perkins.
“We looked at a lot of buildings but nothing worked. So we finally just decided we needed to build a building. It was an incredible experience,” she said. The volunteer effort was large, with the general contractor himself – and many others donating services. The building was built for about $600,000 – and is insured for $1 million.
The building was up and running in January, 2018.
“The wonderful part of this is that people have worked together. It’s been one of the most exciting experiences for me to have this interfaith thing and to find out how alike we are, you know?” said Perkins. “And how willing people are to work together. It’s the only reason this place works is because people work together.”
She said that Leavenworth is a unique community in a lot of ways because it has a lot of retired military who are very generous. “Many, many of our volunteers are retired military.”
Lutherans, Presbytarians, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic – and some that aren’t with the church come together to respond to various needs. One pastor told Perkins at some point “I can’t walk down the street without somebody handing me a set of sheets!”
“At the blessing of the original night shelter a pastor said ‘This goes way beyond ecumenism – this is living the gospel together.’ Perkins said. “And that’s what I think people do here.”
“You also have a wonderful city government that works with you. Often times with things like this, you get: ‘What can we do to keep you for letting this happen?’ But HERE, it was ‘How can we work together to make this happen?” You could not ask for more from them than they gave to us. They were just really, really willing to work with us and help make this work. And that’s still true,” Perkins said.
Reasons for people becoming homeless do vary but Perkins said it often comes down to just a difficult life phase.
“There are a variety of reasons and a variety of people (who become homeless),” said Perkins. “For some – for many -they hit a block. They hit a snag in the road. They’ve been working, they been doing all kinds of good things and then something happens. And suddenly they are homeless.”
Many times, she said, people do get their lives back together through the shelter.
“I just – half hour ago – ran into one on the street – who was with us for probably about a year and a half,” Perkins said.
“He saw me in the store one day – he hollered and came over and gave me a hundred dollar bill. And he comes in once a month and gives us fifty dollars. He says he’s been there, people helped him, he’s giving back. And we have a number of people like that,” she said.
“Then you have some people who have been struggling for a long time. You have some people who have some mental illness. You have just a gamut of people. All of them good people who had a difficult time in their life,” Perkins said.”So, what we try to do is support them and hopefully they at some point they will be ready to move on. But that is their choice, not ours.”
The shelter has three paid staff as directors and three part time staff that help with night check in and morning check out.
Perkins and Johannsen are the two Sisters who work at the shelter.
“We’re both Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth and our community allows us to do this as a volunteer full time because it’s work that the community supports. Sisters of Charity works very hard to try to reach out to those living in poverty. So, this is a perfect kind of work for people like us,” said Perkins.
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Peggy Bair is a Midwest journalist and photographer covering human interest stories throughout Middle America.
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