I Was a Stranger: Helping at the Winter Shelter by Kristina Burnett

Keith and I helped out at the South Hayward Winter Shelter for a bit last week. On the way home Jovanne had many questions, and I tried to explain the problem of homelessness to him and that we have to help those who have less than we do. He said, "So we have to take the people who don't have a home to our home." I told him our home wasn't big enough for the many people who don't have a home. His reply: "Yes, but every family who has a home can take a person who doesn't have a home." Such a simple solution from a five-year-old.


Naive? Yes, but then I had to think: Didn’t Jesus command us to help those less fortunate? In Matthew 25 he says, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, [emphasis mine] I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”


Maybe we need to think like children and seek simple solutions, but to be honest, the idea of having a stranger in my home doesn’t appeal to me. I like my space. And some of the guys at the shelter smell. They may have “issues.” But most are rather clean, polite, and soft-spoken. According to Kimberly, volunteer coordinator, “Guests include 3 veterans, 18 seniors over 60, 2 in wheelchairs, and 1 or more sick with cancer! Plus we average 7 people ages 45-59 in cars in our parking lot.”


The shelter houses only single adults, mostly men. However, the number of homeless families who have been priced out of housing even though the adults have jobs has risen dramatically. Nancy George, Director of Union City Kids’ Zone, states that since the start of the school year, they have received over 50 referrals for newly homeless families and that these families collectively represent over 100 newly homeless children. It boggles the mind to think that these numbers are for only one school district and are likely just as large in Hayward, Fremont, and surrounding communities. Clearly we have to do something.


As I see it, the most immediate need is shelter from the elements. Then comes food, followed by shower and laundry facilities. I don’t think the cities and counties have done enough to help the homeless, especially with long-range planning like requiring inexpensive subsidized housing to be included in any new housing development. Unless we are willing to take in the homeless as Jovanne suggested, we need to pressure elected officials for solutions. And we have to be willing to allow public housing and shelters in our neighborhoods. Short-term, we can donate to South Hayward Parish, FESCO, and similar organizations so that at least we can prevent deaths from freezing, like the one of Joe White in December 2013.


The shelter at New Bridges Outreach Center is funded for only 50 open nights December through April and has been approved to shelter up to 25 adults per night. As of January 5, it has been open 21 nights already, and one night eight people had to be turned away. It costs roughly $20 per person per night to provide shelter from the elements. Contributions to the Joe White Movement, care of South Hayward Parish, could help open the shelter more nights through this cold, wet winter. If it doesn’t feel right to take “one of the least of these brothers and sisters” into our homes, maybe we can at least make sure that there is room in the inn, room in a shelter for them.