People living on the edge Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering is ‘family’ to many
If you think it is cold outside this month, imagine how much colder you would be if you were homeless and living on the streets. Thankfully, for the homeless in the Lehigh Valley there is a temporary shelter in Bethlehem that offers an escape from the cold, nutritious meals and a needed helping hand.
Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering (BES) created the current winter shelter in 2017 by consolidating a number of facilities operated at up to 14 different churches in the area. In search of a single home, the BES Board of directors approached the Christ Church UCC on Market Street, and according to transitional executive director and shelter manager Bob Rapp Jr., the congregation voted unanimously to welcome the shelter.
In the current facility there are warm beds for up to 75 persons, with separate dorm-style rooms for men and women.
“The guests are an interesting mix of folks. Not unlike people you would meet at a ball game,” Rapp said. “Some guests are chronic homeless who have been on the streets for seven or eight years. Tonight, we have a young man from out of town who will stay with us for two weeks until he gets a paycheck from his new job. There’s also a college graduate who just has had bad luck.”
Rapp observed that most people don’t realize how much they are living on the edge. All it takes is a health trauma or loss of a job to end up homeless, he said. “You can go to any Walmart parking lot and see people sleeping in their car. Sometimes more than one car.”
Homeless people do freeze to death in the winter, Rapp said, referring to a couple found frozen in the ball fields at Illicks Mill. BES operates during the coldest months from Dec. 1 through March 31, but Rapp added, “it is just as hard being out in the summer with ticks, bugs and heat. Last summer we lost someone to dehydration.” For that reason, he said the BES board of directors is considering an option of running the shelter all year round.
For now, the winter shelter is providing a variety of needed services besides just a bed and food. Street Medicine from the Lehigh Valley Health Network offers diagnostic testing. Other organizations coordinate with BES to help guests get on housing lists, or start on medical regimens.
“We need to drive home the point that we are here to help them,” Rapp explained. “Some of these folks consider us their family. They don’t trust a lot of other people.”
In order to stay at the shelter, guests must first get a voucher from the police. If anyone has a warrant against him, he has a five-day grace period to stay at BES while going to see a magistrate to make a plan on how to get off the street and into housing. If the warrant is related to a serious matter, the police would detain the person, Rapp said.
The shelter opens at 5 p.m. and lights are out at 10 p.m. Guests may not arrive earlier than 4:45, and no one is allowed outside the building after 10. Emergency exits are alarmed, and doors are locked so no one can get in after closing. Guests must leave by 7 a.m. Two shifts of security guards are on duty every day from 4 p.m. in the afternoon until 8 a.m. The shelter manager also is on duty all night, as are a number of volunteers.
“There are issues in the shelter sometimes, but they are usually medical,” Rapp clarified.
“We couldn’t pull this off without volunteers,” Rapp continued. “Last year, [we had] 1,200 volunteers in four months. They come from all over the valley; most from churches.”
Volunteers do everything from buying food for all the meals, cooking in the shelter’s well-equipped kitchen, serving meals and cleaning up. Some volunteers stay after dinner to entertain with guitars or keyboards, or to play games with the guests.
On its website page, BES notes that the need to shelter the homeless will not go away. It pledges to continue in its shared ministry with churches, civic organizations, businesses and city and county leaders “to work together to serve ‘the least of these.’”