WESTFIELD - It's stating the obvious to say that a small village church congregation can't do anything about the frigid temperatures that terrorized the region this year.
But what they have done is start an active and tangible conversation about how to help those who are totally homeless and on the street on nights that have boasted temperatures as low as 20 degrees below zero.
"In the month of December, we had a number of people seeking assistance from us," said the Rev. Virginia Carr of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Westfield.
The Rev. Virginia Carr poses in front of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Westfield with the portable homeless shelter recently constructed by members of the St. Peter’s vestry.
The interior of the portable shelter shows insulation, a sleeping bag for warmth, and electric lighting. Frustrated by the lack of access to resources for people who have come to the church in need, congregation members organized the construction of the shelter, which has already been occupied.
Not an uncommon situation for a church organization. However, what was uncommon was the noticeable lack of resources for a homeless person in need of basic support systems.
"We started having a discussion, about the fact that it's not easy to access resources, particularly in this area, especially if you have no vehicle or means of transportation. For these smaller villages, particularly along the lakeshore, like Ripley, Westfield, Brocton, it's difficult to get a person to Jamestown or even Dunkirk to access resources, and even if you're able to do so, you may have limited timing or operating hours to work with," Carr said.
One family that sought help from the church, fortunately, was able to be relocated nearer to family in Pennsylvania. However, the vestry was still aware of people who are squatting, or are entirely exposed to the elements year-round.
"There are people out there that are truly transient," Carr explained.
A 'TINY HOUSE'
Dean Eggert, St. Peter's senior warden, began researching shelter ideas as members of the vestry started discussing and brainstorming ideas to meet the needs of those right in their own village who were transient, and were shuffling from space to space to seek shelter from cold nights.
A Westfield native himself, Eggert stated that although he and his wife Marty had assisted in getting people that needed help to the best resources available, "I guess I was in what I would call the majority of people for whom maybe ignorance has been bliss, maybe by choice or maybe because I hadn't paid attention, that there are people living on the street. I have since become cognizant of that and we were really flummoxed at what to do as a solution. Our county does the absolute best it can with the resources it has to offer, but those resources aren't always easily accessible."
As a personal interest, Eggert has been following what is known as the "tiny house movement," a phenomenon that is spurring people all over the world to downsize their personal living space to less than 400 square feet for economic and environmentally responsible reasons. Creative pioneer, Paul Elkins, who specializes in similar "emergency deployment shelter" builds was a jumping-off point for Eggert to conceptualize the idea of a portable shelter to house someone off of the pavement.
After learning more about an Episcopal Church parish in Eugene, Ore., which organized with the entire community to form a portable shelter village called "Opportunity Village," the idea began to grow legs and the vestry started thinking communally in its initial desire to help a handful of transient people in need. Volunteers from the church congregation lent their hands to construct the shelter out of basic materials and held an official blessing of the structure during their Sunday coffee hour. Despite limited parking space at the entrance of the church, the structure was out in the parking area for just a short period of time before it was officially occupied.
"Our portable shelter can be moved with two adults, it's approximately 4-by-8 feet and 38 inches in size, it can get someone out of the elements, it's ventilated, has electric lighting and a heated warming pad, and is equipped with other essentials that the church has donated. We wanted to have some place safe for someone to go out of the weather. But more importantly, hopefully we can unite the community. All of us are in the same boat with population decline, economic decline. To truly survive, we have to start pooling our resources and started thinking united, instead of divided," Eggert said.
A $300 PROJECT
With church organizations, school and community groups and civic organizations in abundance in the northern Chautauqua region, St. Peter's hopes to have interest generated in growing the construction of the portable shelters. The cost to construct the initial prototype was $300.
"How many of us can easily spend $20 on dinner once, if not more times per week? If just 15 people donated $20, we could construct a second shelter and place it wherever it's needed. This one little shelter could be a pebble in the water. It might not be a complete answer to the problem, but if there's a need in Ripley or in Brocton, we would be stepping out in the right direction to address those needs. This could be a grassroots effort that wouldn't cause people to worry about the 'red tape' of a solution getting in the way," he added.
"There are still a lot of issues to be addressed, we're not naive. But too many times in life, we can become paralyzed with obsessing over the details. We wanted to just be bold and act and we can always work out the bugs later," she said.
So far, Carr has been approached by Brocton Central School Superintendent John Hertlein to inquire about the project. Although she stated she hasn't personally heard good or bad feedback about the shelter, she hopes that even negative responses will aid the mission of the shelter.
"Our initial start to our conversation sought to find a permanent solution to meet the needs of people who were sleeping on the street or occasionally in our foyer; to raise awareness about this situation; and to get others to come together to find a better solution. Yes, we have wonderful resources here in New York state but for this particular area, they're not easily accessible. In the Episcopal Church, we strive to be relevant to our community. We want to make a difference, not just be considered our own little group. Our soup kitchen here at St. Peter's has operated for 20 years, which meets the needs of having a hot meal, and having socialization," Carr said.
Eggert noted that the ministry of the soup kitchen, operated by Sharon Ackendorf, reaches beyond its goal to meet the community's needs as well.
"If Sharon knows of a need one of our folks has, she will go out of her own way to provide whatever she can. Our kitchen is in operation from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and our church is open to anyone during Sunday services. It has truly caused us to ask, 'What else could we do?' We would like to start taking donations for personal hygiene products, simple medical supplies, anything that could benefit those in need in our community," Eggert said.
Eggert and Carr remind any organization or individual volunteers that if the willingness exists, St. Peter's will be open for the physical construction of another portable shelter. A complete list of materials is available at the church office, which is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and can be reached by calling 326-2064. The church vestry is also willing to deliver a completed structure to wherever one is needed in hopes of helping get even one more person physically off of the street.
"At St. Peter's we would like to be considered 'of Westfield' not just 'located in Westfield,'" Carr said.
For more information, both remind volunteers to contact the church office. Paul Elkins' designs can be found at www.elkinsdiy.com and more information on Eugene, Ore.'s Opportunity Village can be found at www.opportunityvillageeugene.org.