Interfaith homeless shelter offers Tempe transients good night's sleep

Churches take turns providing lodging, meals on weekends

by Grayson Steinberg published on Monday, March 6, 2006

Rod Hansen said he usually sleeps outside in the dirt, bushes or anywhere else hidden -- where he can rest peacefully without police bothering him.

But on Saturday night, Hansen, 35, had a comfortable blanket to sleep in on the floor of a Tempe church.

Hansen, who has been homeless since June, was able to sleep indoors through the Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program, started last month.

"If I wasn't in here, I'd be sleeping outside in the cold," Hansen said. "I've been running a fever for two or three days."

The program includes several local congregations that provide temporary sleeping space, meals and showers on weekends, said Sue Ringler, director of operations at the Tempe Community Action Agency.

The agency is a non-profit organization that helps people in Tempe fulfill basic living needs.

The program rotates between congregations to avoid burdening any of them, Ringler said.

"Our hope is that [the shelter] breaks the cycle of folks that live on the streets," she said.

Ringler said 15 people could be hosted at a church each night. More people would be served as the program grows and minor kinks are worked out.

These issues include having enough blankets and food, she said.

Ringler said her agency and the Salvation Army screen homeless people for drug and alcohol use and mental-health status to see if the program would work for them.

Multiple churches are open each weekend. Some only serve meals, while others offer both meals and a place to stay for the night, she said.

Jill Carey, 57, of Mesa, said she has been homeless for the past eight years. Carey said she was broke after paying for a college dental program and a $20,000 leg surgery.

She added she liked the free meals, showers and sense of privacy offered by the shelter.

"For a homeless person, this is like a night out on the town," Carey said.

Dave Summers, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church of Tempe, said this program, which he first proposed, is necessary in a city without a permanent homeless shelter.

"We felt, from the standpoint of the faith community, it was time to step up and show some leadership," Summers said.

Tempe residents have objected to a homeless shelter near residential areas, fearing its presence could negatively impact neighborhoods, he said.

People don't understand homeless people and judge them as lazy or mentally ill, Ringler said.

She said she has been reluctant to publicly advertise the participating congregations because nearby residents may get upset.

But there hasn't been any opposition to this project yet, Summers added.

The program is funded by about $6,000 collected from private donations and a large contribution from last year's interfaith Thanksgiving service, he said.

This project is inexpensive because the congregations donate space at times it's not being used, he said.

Craig Miller, an associate pastor at University Presbyterian Church, another participating church, said he hopes this program could help homeless people get off the streets.

"They simply need a place to stay and get their lives back together," Miller added.

Hansen said this project has a lot of potential.

"There's a lot of people who don't want to be in this situation," he said. "But they don't have the opportunity to get out of it."

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