Catalyst at work: Grant helps Sheboygan warming center expand       

Image of the St. Johns UCC warming centerAn overnight warming center that serves the homeless in Sheboygan will be able to operate through March thanks in part to the leadership provided by a UCC congregation and a Catalyst Grant provided by the Wisconsin Conference.

Launched in 2017 by St. John’s UCC and other faith communities, the Sheboygan County Warming Center offers a hot meal and a warm place to sleep for up to 20 individuals a night. The center rents space at Sheboygan’s Ss. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church for $800 a month.

The $4,000 Catalyst Grant was matched by the congregation. The grant will enable the warming center to operate seven nights a week through the winter, up from previous years’ schedule of six to seven weeks of Monday-through-Thursday service.

The center occupies a distinct niche.

“We are a no-judgment facility,” said Lynne Guenther, office manager at St. John’s and a member of the warming center steering committee. “If you come in drunk or high, if you behave yourself, you can just sleep it off. . . .

“With what we’re doing, there are no hoops. It’s open to anybody any time. . . . Here you can just come. They don’t have to go to (a human services) agency where it takes three, four weeks to get cleared for services.”

The demand for services is clear.

“We have seen such a great increase this year versus other years, which amazes us,” Guenther said. Five guests showed up on Dec. 27, the first night the facility was open this winter.

“The next night we had 15,” Guenther said. “The next night we had 20 and had to turn people away. We’ve been between 13 and 20 ever since.” The 20-person limit is a concession to COVID-19.

The total homeless population is hard to pin down.

“The reality is the school district tells us when they can’t find a single address for children, they’ll have somewhere between 300 and 400,” said the Rev. Gregory Whelton, St. John’s pastor. “Police consider it between 200 and 275 adults who don’t know where they’re going to spend the night in this town.” As of Jan. 15, Whelton said, the center had served 42 different individuals this season.

The center operates with a small paid staff and about 90 volunteers drawn from the community. Twenty of those volunteers are from St. John’s, Whelton said.

The idea for the warming center emerged from the Church Council during a cold snap in 2016.

“It was a Sunday, probably about 2 below that day,” Whelton said. “We had 40 mph winds and wind chills about 60 below. The council president and I wondered what would happen if our kids’ cars broke down in this weather. What if people had to live in their cars in this weather?” It turned out that homeless people in the community had nowhere to turn for overnight shelter when the weather turned frigid.

This winter’s expanded hours may be a first step toward a more expansive menu of services in the future.

“Our goal is to eventually have a building that we can open 12 months a year” that contains showers and laundry facilities, Whelton said.

“It’s been a real blessing to watch this grow in the past six years.”

To learn more about the Catalyst program, contact Mary Kuenning Gross, grants coordinator for the Wisconsin Conference.

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