Freezing Nights continues successful service for homeless men and women

Community: Thirteen churches from Tacoma to Puyallup provide shelter seven nights per week

Special to the HeraldDecember 11, 2013 

Val Stabilito is a perfect story of what could happen to many people. She worked at a local bank. She owned a home, and life was good.

Then the bottom caved in. The bank closed, and she lost her job. She worked two part-time jobs, but she eventually ate through her savings and lost her house soon afterward. She lived in her car at a Walmart parking lot.

But Stabilito got out of the cold when she learned about Freezing Nights, a program among 13 churches to house and feed the homeless, seven nights a week, from November through March.

“The main purpose is to provide a place of safety and warmth for the homeless,” said Amy Schweim, one of the program coordinators.

The volunteers — more than 150 of them — are the heart and soul of the program. They check in the guests, set up the cots or mattresses, and prepare and serve dinner, breakfast and a sack lunch.

But that’s not all. They also play games, watch movies, pray, talk and treat guests with respect.

“There is a relational piece,” Schweim said. “We encourage our volunteers to sit down and talk to the guests, play cards or games, get to know the guests.”

The volunteers spoke compassionately about the guests.

Sheri Martin started as a volunteer when Shepherd of the Hill opened its doors to the homeless eight years ago.

“It’s a great program,” Martin said. “I have had a very fortunate life, and I have had a very easy life. This is a way that I can do something for people who are in a place where they are not having such a good life. When you look them in the eye, and they look you in the eye, they become very real instead of just ‘those people.’ ”

David Hawley is in his second year as a volunteer and looks at donating his time as a way to support others.

“It is a small way to be part of the community,” he said. “This is our town, and there are people in our town who need help. It is a great way to be part of that.”

South Hill Presbyterian church is the charter organization for Boy Scout Troop 274. The 20-member troop volunteers five nights per season.

Scoutmaster Rich Waterman said their assistance is part of what scouting is all about.

“Part of the scouting way is community service,” Waterman said. “We teach the boys, we mentor the boys to give back. And the only way to do that with community service is to do it.”

Some of the homeless are down on their luck. Some are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some suffer from mental illness.

The guests must follow a few rules to participate, such as no violence, weapons, offensive language or sexual behavior. They also are asked to be respectful to other guests and volunteers.

Meanwhile, the volunteers are encouraged to not share personal information, give rides alone or give money.

“There are obvious boundaries, but we do encourage lots of communication with the guests, and part of that is done to help move the guests from homelessness to back on their own, and, if it is possible, for them to become productive citizens of this society again,” Schweim said.

Gene Anderson, 34, said he has been homeless for about a month. He didn’t want to stay at a Tacoma mission, so he huddled up in the woods near Tacoma.

“I stayed up on the hill for a week in the rain under a blanket,” Anderson said.

Now, he “walks and observes” on Puyallup streets, waiting to be picked up for another evening with Freezing Nights.

James Roberts, a former electrician, was hurt on the job about 10 years ago and now suffers from severe back pain. He said Washington state has deemed him unemployable. The 45-year-old said he has been homeless for most of his life. His father died three years ago, and he now has no family members.

“My life has been up and down, up and down,” Roberts said. “I have had a lot of hardships. I would buy the house, buy the car, and then lose them both again.”

Roberts lives on nearly $400 a month. He is working with an attorney to get improved Social Security benefits.

About his future, Roberts pointed to a room of tables with other homeless people eating dinner and said, “This.”

Levon Becht, a 1994 Puyallup High School graduate, has been homeless for a couple of months. A family man with a wife and 1-year-old son, he’s separated from his spouse.

“I made some poor decisions,” Becht said. “My wife decided it would be best to be with her parents for a while. I needed to straighten out my life a little bit.”

Becht lost his job as a landscaper three months before the separation. The couple lost their house two months ago.

“My wife’s income was too little to keep the house,” Becht said.

Becht started to use Freezing Nights a month ago, and he said he appreciates being able to sleep indoors.

“But it is much more than that,” he said. “I get the goodness of what people have to offer. I have met the most wonderful people. They made this feel like home here.”

Tom McCrady is a freelance reporter for the Herald.

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