Nineteen Laurel-area congregations are working to get the word out about the Dec. 1 start of Winter Shelter, services provided by the faith-based groups to help homeless people during colder months.
City officials said there are no firm numbers of homeless people in the Laurel area. But social worker Marsha Raymond said that over the last 17 years she has worked with the shelter effort, she has seen the numbers increase.
Raymond is a volunteer coordinator with St. Mary of the Mills Catholic Church, one of the places of worship offering shelter.
“There’s also a large population that refuses to come in, because they don’t want to follow the rules, or share space with other people. They’d rather stay out in the cold in the tent cities,” Raymond said, referring to homeless encampments along the Patuxent River in the Laurel area.
In January, a 26-year-old homeless woman drowned in the river during heavy flooding.
Pam Brown, a volunteer coordinator for St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, another place of worship taking part, said the program’s mantra comes from Isaiah 58:7 in the Bible: “Provide shelter to the poor homeless and feed them.”
“I think, for any religious organization, this is one of the things we are charged to do,” Brown said.
Laurel’s Winter Shelter formerly was known as Winter Haven, but the board of directors dissolved two years ago, Brown said. Several of the member congregations got together to keep the homeless shelter program going.
Brown said additional congregations have expressed an interest in assisting with Winter Shelter this year.
Linda Bergofsky, co-chair of Oseh Shalom synagogue’s social action and community support committee, said she personally became involved in the shelter because of her own interest in social justice, and because helping those in need is a major tenet of her Reconstructionist Judaism faith.
“The Winter Shelter is important because it fills a gap that exists in our region,” Bergofsky said, adding that there are no other regional homeless services encompassing the juncture of Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Howard counties.
The different places of worship host the homeless for a week each throughout the winter.
Leah Paley, emergency services director for Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services, a nonprofit center that conducts intakes on behalf of the shelter, said guests are informed of the shelter schedule during intake. Then, they are notified at the end of each week where the next shelter will be.
Intakes begin Nov. 18, Paley said.
Transportation often is provided from Elizabeth House, a Laurel soup kitchen, to the shelters during the winter, Paley said.
Last year, 86 people used the Winter Shelter, according to Paley.
Brown said up to 40 individuals a night came to the shelters last year.
Individuals seeking more information or assistance are asked to contact LARS at 301-776-0442. Brown said a schedule for the Winter Shelter will be posted on the St. Philip’s website, www.stphilipslaurel.org.
The Laurel-area homeless are mostly men. Many come to the shelter with substance abuse or mental health issues, Brown said. Because of that, Brown said, many of the shelters also have crisis intervention counselors available for guests.
Raymond said others just don’t have a place to stay.
“Some lose their jobs, or disaster strikes. Some are transient; they come to this area and they can’t afford to pay rent,” Raymond said. “Some people are just down on their luck and need a place to stay until they can get back on their feet again.”