Shelter space opened just before arctic blast
The chapel service on Jan. 8 was in the new facility’s day room. All the chairs were filled, and Wheeler President Rick Alvis welcomed guests to the new building.
Adjoined to the existing shelter at 520 E. Market St., the facility was three years in the making and the result of much praying, planning and fundraising, said Wheeler Mission CEO and President Rick Alvis.
“Our homeless citizens are impacted by harsh weather more than anyone else in the community; getting them out of the cold can literally mean life or death,” he emphasized.
The shelter has been sleeping an average of 265 people a night, and that puts them almost shoulder to shoulder, said Steve Kerr, chief development officer. “But the good news is that they are indoors and safe.” The shelter can accommodate more people, but when the number gets above 300 there are safety concerns. Those who don’t get a bed are given mats and blankets.
The new space is only the first phase of a multi-tiered plan to update and expand the shelter, according to Kerr, who has been employed by Wheeler for 21 years. Phase 2 will begin in the spring, when the existing facility is gutted and remodeled.
The kitchen, originally built to prepare only a few hundred meals a day, will be remodeled so the staff can prepare more than three times that many. An average of 650 meals have been served daily since the first of the year, and that taxes the personnel. The dining hall will also be renovated because it is so small that people must eat in shifts.
No matter the crowd, Kerr said the staff always finds a way to accommodate the guests. Except in rare situations, no one is ever turned away.
The first floor of the new two-story building features a huge day room where guests can wait for meals and services or simply escape the harsh weather. There are also offices and private lockers.
The second story boasts laundry facilities and showers. After showering, the men don their new pajamas and just walk down a hallway to the dormitory in the old facility. There is also something unique to almost all shelters – a heat room.
Guys can hang their clothes overnight in the heat room, which gets up to 160 degrees. “The heat kills all the insects and bed bugs that might be in their clothing,” said Kerr. The men get up the next morning and can get dressed in clothes that are insect-free.
Probably the best part, he said, would be the elevator, which the existing building did not have. The center can now accommodate anyone who has a physical disability and cannot navigate the stairs to the sleeping area. “Before, they had to sleep on the floor, and that’s just not very dignified,” Kerr noted.
Wheeler Mission launched its $6.5 million capital campaign for the expansion three years ago, and has raised $6.9 million. Of that, $4.8 million paid for the new shelter, which will be formally dedicated Wednesday, Jan. 21. The rest will fund improvements to the older facility and the organization’s other ministries.
As Wheeler continues to serve more people, it is asking for donations of large and extra large pajama pants, socks, underwear and money. Contributions can be dropped off at 205 E. New York St.
Founded in 1893, the center is a nondenominational Christian organization that provides critically needed goods and services to the homeless and needy through a variety of programs. Funding has always come from the private sector as Wheeler does not receive government funds. Proceeds from the Drumstick Dash helped Wheeler serve more than 302,449 meals and provide 127,314 nights lodging in 2013.
With seven locations, dozens of ministries, a budget of $8.5 million and about 120 employees, Kerr said he believes it is the largest and oldest ministry of its kind in the state.