Vaughn Clark rested on a cot set up Wednesday night at Lexington Park United Methodist Church, eyeing the homemade quilt and the warmth it would soon bring him. Without the quilt, the cot and the church, Clark would likely have been sleeping in the woods somewhere that night.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Clark said of the program that brought him to the church on a night when the temperature dipped below freezing. WARM, which stands for Wrapping Arms ‘Round Many, aims to provide shelter every night for 20 weeks during cold weather for single men and women who do not have a home to call their own.
About 40 churches and other organizations in St. Mary’s are continuing the four-year tradition of offering a warm meal and a bed during cold months.
“We’re having a really good season this year,” said Sara Martin, chair of the WARM program.
Twenty different churches take a week at a time to provide a dinner, a place to sleep and breakfast for up to two dozen homeless people November through March. Another 20 churches and other groups assist with cooking, helping to move the cots along with the homemade quilts and other bedding each week to a new location, or staying with the church guests overnight.
Martin, the administrator at Lexington Park United Methodist Church, said the many religious organizations working in the program are able to pull help from one another as needed. About 50 volunteers are needed per week to make the program successful, she said.
Some smaller congregations are able to provide help to the larger churches that actually host the overnight guests. Students from St. Mary’s College of Maryland as well as some civic groups also help out certain weeks, Martin said.
This week at Lexington Park United Methodist, there were young and old men and women, some newly homeless and others who fall into what social service workers call chronically homeless.
Clark, 59, is in the latter category, living on the street or temporarily crashing with friends and family for at least the last two years, he said.
“That’s all you can do,” Clark said, adding that he is working toward getting financial help through disability programs.
Somebody told him about the WARM program two weeks ago, and he has been staying at churches since then. “Everybody’s full up,” the St. Mary’s County native said of his relatives’ and friends’ home. He said some teenagers wrecked a tent he used to sleep in some time back, destroying the last real shelter he had.
Jonathan Davis found himself without a home after his mother moved out of state last month. The 21-year-old said he is looking for a job, but without a car he is limited to walking the streets of Lexington Park. “I had nowhere else to go,” he said.
So for about the last 10 days, Davis has been meeting up with other homeless men and women and awaits the warm confines of whatever church happens to be hosting the program that night. He said once at the church, he mostly sticks to himself, reading books.
“When the temperature outside goes down, the WARM numbers go up,” said the Rev. Greg Syler of St. George’s Episcopal Church. The Valley Lee church hosted the program during Christmas week, but with extra support from many of the other religious organizations that are part of WARM.
“It was an unique week unto itself,” Syler said.
At the Episcopal church, as at others participating, volunteers set up tables for the evening meals. The congregation joined the homeless men and women in a family-style setting, “helping to restore the dignity of the WARM guests,” Syler said.
Syler and St. George’s Episcopal have been part of the WARM program since it formed three winters ago. At the time about seven churches participated; now there are a dozen different religious groups, including churches, a synagogue and a mosque.
In 2009, conversations between some of those working with the homeless and churches revolved around starting a program in St. Mary's similar to ones already in existence in other counties, including in Calvert and Charles. At that time the homeless population here and elsewhere was swelling as the recession took hold.
Shelters were often filled beyond capacity during cold weather as homeless men and women slept on floors, filling every square inch of space.
The WARM program offers space, food and warmth; basically a place to call home even if just for a night.
“They would be on the floor here otherwise,” said Lanny Lancaster, executive director of Three Oaks Center.
He said WARM is particularly important because it helps single women who are without a home, a population Three Oaks is not equipped to serve. Currently, Three Oaks has housing available for homeless women with children, but single women are usually sent to Angel’s Watch shelter in Hughesville.
“We have more women than they have space for,” especially this time of the year, Lancaster said.
He estimated that of the 20 to 25 people served each night through the WARM program, seven or eight are usually women.
The program does not serve homeless children, per department of social services instructions. Homeless children are placed in other programs, Martin said.
The basic schedule has not changed much since the program started. People meet at the Three Oaks Center in Lexington Park after being referred by the social services department. County-run buses pick up the homeless and take them to the church that is on duty for the week.
They arrive each evening at about 6 p.m. and are fed dinner; lights are out at 10 p.m. In the morning an early breakfast is served and everyone leaves the church via bus by 7 a.m.
Host churches include Trinity Lutheran, Holy Angels, Faith Bible, Church of the Ascension, First Missionary Baptist, Church of Christ, Immaculate Conception, St. George’s Episcopal, Lexington Park United Methodist, Cornerstone Presbyterian, Immaculate Heart of Mary, First Saints Community, Real Life, Patuxent Presbyterian, Good Samaritan Lutheran, Trinity Episcopal, Mt. Zion United Methodist, SAYSF Bible and Oasis of Victory Christian.
The Rev. David Wells at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church said that his congregation in Mechanicsville hosted WARM one week in December, and that thanks to the volunteers who organized the week everything went smoothly. He said he was particularly glad to see some of the younger members of the church pitch in to help, including cooking meals.
“It gives them this awarenesss that there is this need out there,” Wells said.