City unites with churches, volunteers to warm bodies, lift spirits

single-meta-cal January 7, 2022

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
― Mohammed Ali

As the temperatures began dipping into the 30s on Thursday, Jan. 6, the first visitors began arriving. Though the temporary warming shelter wouldn’t open for another hour, the two homeless men – both carrying their belongings in plastic bags – were welcomed at University Baptist Church on Jordan Lane.

Inside the church’s spacious basement, volunteers unfolded cots. Others worked on assembling the outdoor “Warming Shelter Here” signs.

The volunteers, each wearing a smile on their masked faces, worked quickly.

A group of people, two with their backs turned, work on putting together a sign that says "Warming Shelter Here"

Volunteers at University Baptist Church help set up signs ahead of the opening of a temporary warming shelter.

“Back to the Future” played on a large-screen TV in the corner as the two men, still in heavy coats, watched from adjacent couches. A short time later, another volunteer brought in several overstuffed plastic bags full of blankets.

The kitchen, just past the TV room, was well-stocked with food. Some of it cooked in homes, some purchased by volunteers.

The effort to save lives on a cold night wasn’t accomplished solely by a handful of individuals, but instead by a dedicated network of Community Development employees, volunteers, churches and nonprofit organizations like First Stop and the North Alabama Coalition for the Homeless (NACH).

“We really can’t thank our community partners enough,” said Community Development Director Scott Erwin. “None of this would be possible without them.”

“The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’
But…the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” ―Martin Luther King Jr.

Organizers predicted anywhere from 50 to 70 people would seek refuge in the shelter as lows dipped into the teens, with single-digit wind chills.

Some would come simply because it’s close. Some because they have nowhere else to go.

This was Rev. Rose Veal Eby’s second year helping organize the warming shelter. When asked why this effort was so critical, she offered a grim tale.

“Last year, one person didn’t know about it and lost four toes,” she said. “So, it’s really important.”

Like Erwin, Veal Eby praised the efforts of local churches, including the Church of the Nativity, where she is Outreach Missioner.

“They donate blankets, food, coffee, money and help break down,” she said. “Parishioners pick up food, drop it off and pack up supplies.”

“So long as we love we serve; so long as we are loved by others, I would almost say that we are indispensable; and no man is useless while he has a friend.” ― Robert Louis Stevenson

In previous years, a warming shelter was set up at the Max Luther Community Center. This is the first year University Baptist Church offered its facility, which Community Development officials truly saw as a Godsend.

A woman and a man unfold a green cot at a temporary warming shelter.

Joyce Davis and Rob Peavy help set up cots at University Baptist Church.

Like Veal Eby, Peavy credited the efforts of local churches and volunteers, as well as the leadership of City administration, Erwin and Community Development staff.

“There’s more than a dozen people who helped pull this together,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but that place doesn’t exist.”

Even if it’s not perfect, the shelter provides temporary warmth to a segment of Huntsville’s population often forgotten or ignored. More importantly, Veal Eby sees it as a way to get away from their own reality for a short time.

“I’m going to go out later and get some prizes,” she said. “Tomorrow, we’re playing bingo.”

To learn more about how to help Huntsville’s homeless population, visit the websites of First Stop, the North Alabama Coalition for the Homeless (NACH)Church of the Nativity and the City’s Community Development Office.