Church offers welcome respite for homeless

Okotoks: United Church looking for help with Inn from the Cold

By: John Barlow

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Dec 04, 2013 11:28 am

Raegan Knoch, right, and Sydney Fagervik place chocolates on beds for homeless families and individuals staying the night with the Inn from the Cold program.
Raegan Knoch, right, and Sydney Fagervik place chocolates on beds for homeless families and individuals staying the night with the Inn from the Cold program.
Jordan Verlage/OWW

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On a dark winter evening more than a dozen people walk into the Okotoks United Church to find some needed respite — they are cold, tired, hungry and homeless.

Men, women and even children quietly come into the church where several volunteers welcome their guests.

They show them an area where they can take some donated clothes, settle into a clean bed and sit down to a warm, homecooked meal.

It is Brad’s first time ever accessing Inn from the Cold and he is overwhelmed with the welcome he has received from the members of the Okotoks church. He is enjoying his dinner, but what he is most looking forward to is a good nights sleep in a warm bed.

“I never knew about Inn from the Cold and I have been sleeping wherever I can find a spot, usually on the lobby floor of the Calgary Drop-in Centre,” he said. “There was no blankets and there was sometimes yelling screaming. It is tough when you have to rest.

“This is such a relief,” he said of the United Church. “This is like a weight has been taken off my shoulders, even if it is just one night.”

Like most of the people taking refuge at Inn from the Cold Brad is not what one would consider a stereotypical homeless person.

He is a drywaller who is separated from his wife and child and is desperately trying to get his life back on track to have a better opportunity to spend time with his son.

“This is the first time in 16 years I have been in Calgary I have had to use Inn from the Cold,” he explained. “The impression of homeless people is we are not good enough or we are inadequate, but it is just circumstances. Everybody faces difficulties and we can’t judge.”

At the table beside Brad a single mom sits down for dinner while her seven-year-old son asks for a second helping of salad.

Shannon has been using Inn from the Cold regularly, but thankfully families have top priority when seeking a room each night.

She said she is struggling to get back on her feet, but knowing she and her son have a warm place to sleep at night is one less thing she needs to worry about.

“At least I don’t have to worry about having a place to sleep,” said Shannon. “It is my biggest worry and it is very important knowing we have somewhere to go.”

Shannon said she is using some of the resources offered through Inn from the Cold to try and get her life in order, but for now she is thankful her son has a roof over his head.

She said she wants people to understand those who access Inn from the Cold are regular people who, for whatever reason, have fallen on hard times.

“We are normal,” said Shannon. “We are all human and we all have our struggles.”

Regardless of who their guests are or their reasons for being homeless the volunteers at the Okotoks United Church do whatever they can to ensure their guests are comfortable for the night.

The Okotoks United Church hosts up to 15 Inn from the Cold clients once every two months. They had made substantial renovations to the church to provide a temporary home for those in need. There are private rooms for families, shower and laundry facilities and a large commercial kitchen so prepare meals.

Shannon Olson is the co-ordinator for Inn from the Cold at the church and she said they have a committed group of volunteers who want to make their guests feel at home.

“The fact is we have people in our communities who are homeless and with winter coming they need a warm place to stay,” said Olson. “That is the driving force behind what we are doing.”

What they are doing is providing a welcome respite for families in need. People from Inn from the Cold are bussed to Okotoks at about 6 p.m.; they are provided a bed, showers, laundry and a hot meal. In the morning they have breakfast, are given a boxed lunch and then bused back to Calgary around 7 a.m.

Few details are overlooked including a homemade chocolate on the pillows with a heartfelt message welcoming them to their home for the night.

“People think these homeless people are drunks and drug addicts, they don’t realize these are families with children and they are struggling,” said Olson. “This is rewarding for us because we feel nobody should be without a home.”

Volunteers arrive at the church in the afternoon to begin setting up the beds and prepare the evening meal. They are given a list of who will be coming so they can plan accordingly.

Two volunteers stay through the night before being relieved by another team in the morning who prepare breakfast and then clean up.

Olson said often the people who come to the church are surprised at the care and attention they receive.

Volunteers mingle with the guests during dinner, listen to their stories and children play in the rooms.

“We just want to make them comfortable and let them know we are here for you and this is not a hand out, but a hand up,” said Olson.

Now it is the volunteers at the United Church who need a helping hand. Olson said they are asking community groups to step up and take on a night to host Inn from the Cold so the program can be offered in Okotoks more often. The groups can access the church’s facilities, they simply need to provide the volunteers.

“It can look like chaos, but once you get the hang of it it is actually fun,” said Olson. “It builds a lot of fellowship.”

Anyone interested in more information about Inn from the Cold can contact Shannon Olson at 403-938-2993.


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