As temperatures drop in Bethel, a grassroots organization is opening a shelter to provide a safe and warm place to the city’s homeless. The Bethel Winter House will be open every night from December 24th through the three coldest months of the year.
The goal is simple, according Eva Malvich, the chair for the Bethel Winter House project.
“It’s very basic. To prevent death by exposure for people in this community, period.”
She says there were four deaths over the past winter from people who could not get out of the cold. The group says it’s hard to determine the exact need. Malvich says Bethel’s homeless are hidden. People often bounce around between family members and friends’ couches and may be in and out of homelessness. She sees people in the Cultural Center in her job as Museum director.
“I didn’t realize people come here to secure basic needs like drinking water and heat, a place to stay warm. You can see that in the wintertime when we first open. People come in to use the restrooms and hang out,” said Malvich.
Rusty Tews is the Sobering Center program Manager and a leader within the project. He points to a study done last winter.
“We counted 100 people on January 28th last year that were sleeping either in a shelter, such as TWC, or on someone’s couch or out in the woods or in an unheated home. And 36 of them were kids,” said Tews.
A related group called the Bethel Homeless Coalition is working to build a permanent plan, but before that happens, winter is here. The group got together this October and set about on an aggressive schedule to open the shelter by Christmas. They’re getting donations of sleeping mats and blankets from around the region and state. They’re collecting donations online and building a base of volunteers. The Bethel Covenant church will be the shelter’s home for the first month of operations. Its focus will be adults. And just on the very essentials. With a goal of zero deaths, Tews says it’s simply a safe place without any judgment.
“A place to be safe, a place to get some food and shelter for the night. As far as other services, it can’t come from us as a full package we don’t have the resources to do that. They’re out there and I think they’ll come to us and ask,” said Tews.
The group is looking for donations of towels and personal hygiene items, as well as people to cook a warm meal. The plan is for food in the evening and a basic breakfast in the morning. It will be all run by volunteers, according to Tews.
“The biggest thing we need are volunteers. We need people that are willing to come and spend 12 hours. Probably the most boring hours of your life at times, but 12 hours to help monitor for us,” said Tews.
The group of about 30 has organized as a Lions Club. That means they get 501 c (3) status and are eligible for grants and liability insurance. Their goal is to raise $50,000 and be ready for next year too. Malvich says this is problem that Bethel can solve.
“We’re a big community, we’re a caring community, I think we can do better than that, we have an unmet need and we need to do something about it. It’s a community wide problem and it needs a community-wide solution,” said Malvich.
The group’s online fundraising page is here.