Local church trying to assess needs of area homeless with overnight quarters

Rev. Jimi Staton stands in one of two sleeping rooms containing bunk beds in the basement of New Life Fellowship Church, in Huntington, which are open to anyone needing a warm place to sleep through February. The overnight shelter has seen a steady increase in people since it opened the first week of the new year.
Rev. Jimi Staton stands in one of two sleeping rooms containing bunk beds in the basement of New Life Fellowship Church, in Huntington, which are open to anyone needing a warm place to sleep through February. The overnight shelter has seen a steady increase in people since it opened the first week of the new year. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

A 60-day experiment that gives Huntington’s homeless a warm place to sleep at night could reveal some interesting statistics about the status of homelessness in the community.

Rev. Jimi Staton, pastor of New Life Ministries, says when the New Life Fellowship, located at 313 E. Franklin St., opened its doors at the first of the year, on the first night they had one person take advantage of the warmth inside – and the sleeping quarters housed in its basement.

“The next night there were two people,” he says. “It’s been really weird. The third night was three, the fourth night was four, the fifth night was five and the sixth night was six.”

Staton says he wanted to see what the need was for homeless people dwelling in Huntington, and invited people needing a bed to stay at the church during January and February in order find out.

“This will tell us how big of a need there is for a shelter like this in Huntington,” he says. “It’s better for us to have a trial run that costs $8,000 than to spend $50,000 and find out that there really is not that big of a need.”

Staton says many in the community are at odds over whether a homeless shelter is necessary. The report he plans to write in March will dispel any myths, he hopes.

“We’ll have a written report of all of our numbers and the logistics of all the people that came through, and we’ll find out if there’s a need or not,” he adds.

So far, what New Life Ministries has discovered is that there are several men, but also women who are without a warm place to sleep at night, a statistic Staton didn’t think would happen. The night they had six people stay, three were women.

“Some are in cars; some are on the street, just finding cubby holes,” he says. “And other ones have just burned their bridges or they just don’t have a place to stay. Sometimes people call it ‘burning their bridges,’ and they do, but sometimes it’s just over-staying their welcome.”

Staton says the basement is already outfitted with about 20 bunk beds, kept for visiting missionary groups that come to New Life to serve in the meal ministry, Women’s Life House or other areas.

The overnight shelter opens at 7 p.m. each evening, seven days a week. Those coming to the church register in and receive a bedroll consisting of sheets, a blanket and pillow. There are tables and chairs in the common area, as well as pool and foosball tables, providing a bit of relaxation before bed.

The church doors are locked at 9 p.m. and lights are out at 10 p.m. At 6 a.m. the next morning the guests receive a wake-up call, and are out by 7 a.m. Coffee or hot chocolate and maybe a snack may be offered, but there is no meal served; the church’s meal ministry provides free hot dinnertime meals at the kitchen located nearby at 323 N. Jefferson St. Staton says both men and women often congregate outside the church’s blue-awning door on Guilford Street, waiting for the shelter to open for the night. Some have cars; others walk to the church.

Both male and female church members take turns serving as house stewards, staying overnight to assist where needed. In the first few days of its running, Staton says the trial has been a good thing and has been appreciated by those the shelter serves.

“You can see the whites of the eyes of these people – and they’re people, just like everybody else,” he says. “They’re just people trying to figure out how to make it.”

Melani Clayton is one of those trying to find solid footing, after she landed in Huntington from her hometown of Syracuse. She has stayed in the New Life overnight shelter several nights while looking for a job and a permanent place in town to live. She hopes she won’t have to stay long, but adds it’s much better than the alternative scenario.

“What’s it like? It’s horrible,” she relates. “One night – it was the night before I came (to the shelter) – I hung out at the Walmart all night, and I can’t do that. So, I talked to Jimi and he said it was OK that I stayed here.”

Clayton calls it a “God thing” that she can get out of the cold and rest in a safe environment.

“They don’t have anything like this in Syracuse,” she says, finding some new hope at New Life. “Not everybody is perfect; not everybody has a home. I mean, you know, I had one and now I don’t. But I will again. I have to keep positive thinking. It’s so great of them to let me come in here where it’s warm, and lay my head on a clean bed, and coffee in the morning … These guys are a godsend. I mean, seriously. This is God’s work.”

Deb Thorn agrees. A member of New Life Fellowship and a volunteer at the meal ministry, Thorn says helping others meet such a basic need has been a blessing to her. One couple who had been sleeping in their car also came to church for the Wednesday night service before they stayed overnight in the shelter.

“I’m just glad to be able to help,” she says. “It’s just a really good thing that we’re doing here and I’m glad that we can help people and get people beds.”

Staton says he’s not sure what the final numbers will be at the end of February – he personally thinks they’ll be low – or whether the church will opt to keep the shelter open. However, he will present his fact-finding report to city officials such as police, fire and the mayor, who he says are also interested in what the actual homelessness statistics are in Huntington and are behind the shelter. Opening their doors for the two-month period is better than trying to go around town and talk, he says, because they can better find out what the need is by providing a solution.

“Nobody goes to a shelter; it’s always a last resort,” he adds. “You really know when somebody comes in, and basically everything they’ve got in their whole life is right there – that’s it. It’s them, and a backpack.”