By Cynthia A. Lovely
It’s been a long day and the temperatures are dropping fast. You pull up the collar of your coat and pick up the pace to climb the stairs into your home. A nice, warm home, sheltered from the winter’s night of cold winds, snow flurries and plunging digits. You look forward to the comforting warmth, perhaps a fire in the fireplace and a mug of hot chocolate or tea before dinner.
But what if you didn’t have a home? What if you were one of the many homeless, seeking some form of shelter for the evening?
Pastor James Bookhout, of the Bridge Christian Church, Schenectady, New York, is very aware and concerned about the homeless situation. He sponsored his fourth annual Homeless Awareness Sleep-out on Friday, February 23, 2018. Bookhout and a few of his brave congregants spent the night in oversized refrigerator boxes to call attention to this problem. The large boxes lined the sidewalk in front of the food pantry and clothing station at 801 Crane St. on The Bridge campus. “I call it my cardboard condo,” he said, showing off his duct-taped box. “Look, it even has a door.” He opens a cut out door and shows the inside of the box, fixed up with his sleeping bag and pillow. He explains the blue tarp on his “roof” to protect it from the possible rain or snow during the night. Creative? Yes. Protection against the elements? Not really. But some people don’t have even that much to shelter in.
Bookhout and his wife Bree, became more aware of the homeless situation when they held their first warming station during the winter months a few years ago. The reality of the freezing temps inspired them to post a sign out front of their church property offering free hot drinks and a place to escape the chill. Many people responded and wandered in during the day to get out of the cold, enjoy hot beverages and relax in a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Because of the popular response, the warming station evolved into a regular winter hangout for many people who have no place else to go. Getting to know some of these visitors, Bookhout found out there were several that had no real home. They would either stay with friends for a while or find a un- heated, abandoned house to sneak into for a place to sleep at night. The reality of this dilemma brought about the idea of the Homeless Awareness Sleep-out.
The recent event quickly became a busy evening while volunteers set up food for the visitors and any walk-ins who happened to stop by. With a smile and a prayer, the volunteers served hot chili, soup, hot chocolate, coffee or tea to about 75 visitors. Church members handed out winter clothing: heavy coats, scarves, hats, gloves, and sweaters. One woman donated a box of hand knit hats, gloves and socks, bringing a homemade, personal touch to those in need. There was a strong feeling of camaraderie and a selfless ministry with much laughter during the evening’s events. “I love this,” a volunteer stated. “The people here have such a love and a passion to serve others.” Volunteers worked all night; serving food, handing out clothes and blankets, prepping the cardboard condos and offering support and encouragement. Some remained until the early morning hours and the center stayed open from 7:30 PM to 7:30 AM the next morning.
The Food Pantry was a popular segment and there was also a section offering another option: free haircuts. The Henry Street Barber Shop of Saratoga Springs set up their barber chairs and with ready equipment worked on haircuts during the evening for anyone in need of a trim. Corporate sponsors of the sleep-out who gave $100.00 or more for a volunteer sleeping outside, could have the name of their company or business logo professionally monogrammed on a blanket. The blankets were then given out upon request. Blankets were provided by Awards By Walsh Creative Marketing. Another important donor was Olive Garden restaurant of Colonie who provided a good portion of food supplies.
The focus and impact of the annual sleep-out is to make people aware and concerned about the homeless problem. Sleeping out in a box for one night is commendable. But there are other things to factor in besides the discomfort of a hard cement sidewalk and a cold, damp and rainy evening. When questioned if he actually slept much that night, Bookhout grinned. “Yes, on and off. But around 3:00 AM, the neighborhood starts to pick up. Maybe because local bars close at that time and more people are on the streets. Some rowdy people did come by and thumped on the roof of the box, waking me up. It startles you and you wonder what could be next.” It does take a certain type of courage to do this while realizing the many dangers of the neighborhood. But the Bridge pastor and church family pray, station angels and trust God through the long night. And all is well come morning.
All money raised from the event goes towards renovations on the future Bridge Veteran’s House, also on Crane St. “Our hopes for this house are to help veterans and the homeless with food and emergency, temporary housing. The next phase of building will be a new roof. We are about 65% complete on renovations but there is still a lot to accomplish and we always need more funds.” said Bookhout.
And when you go home tonight to your house, apartment, condo or rented room, remember to be thankful for a place to call home.