By Bethany Melvin
There are over 553,742 people in America experiencing homelessness. Of those 553,742, only a few are able to live in a shelters. However, others are not so lucky. Some of these people are victims of mental health issues, the opioid epidemic, and addiction. What happens to these people on cold winter nights, when they have nowhere else to turn but mangled tents or the frigid, hard streets we walk on daily? What happens to the mothers, the children, the men that live on the streets? Homelessness is not the diagnosis – the solution. The question we should be resolving is, what is the diagnosis, and what’s the cure?
Homelessness is not a new issue facing Americans today. Over 6,000 of those 553,742 people are in Virginia. In fact, the problem was so obvious that 10 years ago, an organization launched that would reshape homelessness right here in our backyard, Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter, or WATTS.
Some concerned citizens in Winchester made an observation and asked the question, “Why do we have people freezing in the streets yet so many empty churches?” So in January of that year, eight churches in Winchester got together and for ten of the coldest weeks of the year, they opened their doors from 7 p.m. – 7 a.m. providing food and a place to sleep.
This first season experienced growing pains, as many guests did not trust this new program as it was new and unknown, some even refused to participate. This first season, guests consisted of mostly older men who were chronically homeless, but now consists of guests of all ages with vastly different stories and backgrounds. In fact, 30% of the current population of WATTS are women. While homelessness is a national issue, statistics gathered by the executive director of WATTS, shows that 85% of WATTS guests have Winchester and Frederick County zip codes. For more information about zip codes and other information relating to homelessness, visit Homeless Law.
Because of the brave guests who came and realized WATTS was not only safe, but real, WATTS has evolved so much from where they started to where the program is now. WATTS is now a 20 week non-profit, charitable organization 501(c)(3), occurring from November-March with 20 host locations. Churches make up many of the host locations, however, churches aren’t the only venues allowed to host. This low barrier shelter provides cots, linens, blankets, pillows, and volunteers at each shelter that provide medical personnel, a warm dinner, breakfast and a bagged lunch.
Karen Willis, a volunteer for WATTS of over three years, shares how she became involved and helped her church, Burnt Factory United Methodist Church (BFUMC), become one of the hosts. Karen was the lead volunteer for BFUMC for three years, and now serves on the operations committee for WATTS. Karen expressed her excitement of the good the program is doing stating, “We (operations committee) discuss ways to make WATTS better and the best we can be.”
Long time volunteer of WATTS, Marion Schottelkorb, became increasingly more active in the program as she helped in its first year, was her church’s lead volunteer for a period of time, and as one thing led to another she became the Executive Director of WATTS. Marion expressed the program’s need for a fixed location, so that the program can do what it’s best at doing, but expand those services and the ways they’re provided. This is something she sees happening in the near future, and knows it’s possible because of the success the program has brought the community. “What we do, we’re good at. It works. This is an organization that every week for 20 weeks replicates itself. What we do is remarkable, but I believe we can do more” said Schottelkorb
“I am amazed by the community, the kindness and generosity, the people in the community, and the number of people willing to do this. WATTS doesn’t exist without the volunteers, those people stepping forward and willing to get out of their comfort zones,” said Schottelkorb. As Schottelkorb lit up talking about the people that volunteer beside her, she mentioned how grateful her guests are. “The other things that I really love is the appreciation of the guests, and seeing them truly feel comfortable and accepted and proud of a community where they belong, and they know they belong,” said Marion.
WATTS has truly transformed the lives of many. Marion said, “Before I got involved with WATTS, the homeless were people who were out there, and just in my scope of thought. It was the realization when I started to work with WATTS, that that was me, I could be there at any time. These people have stories, they’re somebody’s babies.”
However, Marion isn’t the only person who has been touched by WATTS. Tom, a guest, says, “WATTS gives us a degree of hope and worth – hopelessness and uselessness are predominant feelings when you are in this situation – to see the human generosity and Christian charity among the WATTS volunteers gives a feeling of hope and worth. WATTS has kept me safe – it is really rough out in the woods and not always safe. WATTS is really a good program – I am nourished and kept warm and WATTS gives many of us a feeling of belonging when we are often treated as outcasts.”
Marion shared a memory of a couple whose lives were also impacted by the program. This couple found themselves homeless for the first time in their lives. They were able to stay in WATTS and utilize its resources. They got part time jobs, and at the end of the season, they got their own place. It was only a room, but it was theirs. They ended up opening their room to someone else who hadn’t gotten their own place yet.
A program made up of many organizations and volunteers, Shenandoah University is in fact a partner of WATTS. For seven years, student life ministries provides the Sunday night meal for each Sunday dinner at all of the locations. Also, in the beginning of November, Shenandoah University holds a fundraiser in which some of the proceeds goes to WATTS. One night is spent out in the quad, where students and staff sleep to raise awareness and money for efforts towards homelessness.
For more information about Shenandoah’s partnership with WATTS, visit https://www.su.edu/service/current-service-opportunities/
Photos courtesy of WATTS.