Rain poured down in vertical sheets against the side of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. The Maxine Lewis Memorial Overflow Shelter occupied the multi-purpose room inside.
Twenty-five beds lined the walls. Covered with blankets, toys and other personal belongings, the room was full of shelter occupants.
A girl no more than 5 years old with a wide smile grabbed my legs and hugged them. We had never met, but the message was clear. This was her home and I was a welcomed guest.
The shelter relies completely on volunteers to staff the 25-to 35-bed facility at different churches in the community. Volunteers switch nightly and shelter sites change monthly. Approximately 730 volunteers are needed per year to keep the overflow shelter open, according to Daniel Pronsolino, Inter-Faith Coalition vice-president.
The Inter-Faith Coalition of San Luis Obispo, an organization of 11 churches and two synogouges, rotate the shelter’s location 365 days a year.
Volunteers come from all over, including Cal Poly. Beyond Shelter is a Cal Poly-based student volunteer group that works with the shelter.
“Our program is trying to erase stereotypes about the homeless for students,” said Zahlia Cronce-Kin, a Cal Poly volunteer of Beyond Shelter.
Although the volunteers change, the occupants remain fairly consistent and have developed a routine amidst the change.
By 7:45 p.m. we were on our own with the occupants and the door to the parking lot outside was locked. Occupants are not permitted to go out to their cars during the night for any reason. The occupants think this prevents EOC from accusing them of drug use while on the property.
The overflow shelter had seven children there that night. They sat at a rectangular table eating Oreos and working on art projects. Some of the children were too young to even participate in the art projects, but others colored and drew before bed.
The majority of overflow shelter occupants are women and children, but tonight two men accompanied by their families stayed in the overflow shelter.
Sherry and her 5-year-old daughter Sheyanne came to the shelter after moving from Connecticut. Sherry, a former supervisor for the Home Depot corporation, left Connecticut after the loss of her home, mother and stepfather.
She researched where she wanted to live while staying in Florida with relatives and eventually decided on the Central Coast.
“California is the golden lands to people from the East Coast.” Sherry said. “I love it out here. I should have pushed for an apartment right when I got here.”
She spent two months living in hotels before coming to the shelter two months ago.
Sherry is currently looking for office work to supplement the $600 per month she receives in child support from her ex-husband. She was unable to look for work before EOC provided her with childcare for Sheyanne.
Each night, Sherry and Sheyanne eat dinner at the main shelter building on Orcutt Road before driving over to the overflow shelter.
For shelter clients without cars, EOC provides a shuttle from the main shelter to the church of the month. On the shuttle every night is shelter patron Carol Trama.
Though dependent on the shelter, she said she isn’t ashamed to be there.
Trama has stayed at the shelter twice in the last two years. She and her husband first came to the shelter in August 2004 and stayed through December.
After a roommate situation went sour and after a month of staying with friends, Trama, with nowhere to stay, again chose to come back to the shelter.
She has been staying at the shelter for the past two months and is currently working full time in San Luis Obispo.
Shelter manager Shawn Ison can relate to the shelter’s occupants, as at one time she spent two months living out of her car at age 16 with her newborn son and sympathizes with the struggles of shelter clients. Ison can only offer shelter services to those over 18, but she has housed young mothers in her office overnight to help them find the right programs in the mornings.
The shelter had been in danger of closing as early as April 15, 2006, but received sufficient donations to stay open through the fiscal year as of March 7, 2006.
“People can donate $5, five blankets, canned food, to address the issue of homelessness in this community,” Ison said.
The shelter relies heavily on volunteers and donations of food and clothing.
Cal Poly’s Beyond Shelter program allows students to contribute time and donations to the shelter. Students can assist with check-in at the shelter or contribute to “necessary item” drives on campus and in the community.
By 6 a.m., shelter occupants were making their beds and doing chores to clean up the church and start their day again.
For more information on how you can donate, call the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter at (805) 781-3993 or e-mail Shawn Ison at email@example.com.
To contact Beyond Shelter e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: Sherry’s last name has been removed for safety reasons.