The Hamilton First Presbyterian Church has agreed to let the Family Shelter of the Bitterroot use part of its building as an emergency warming shelter on cold nights when the weather forecast dips to 15 degrees or colder for overnight lows.
“We have some of those coming up very soon,” said Family Shelter Director Gary Locke. “It’s cold out and when it is 15 degree or lower there is serious potential for hypothermia, or if they are staying in their car we are talking about carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s not good to be out there in it.”
Locke said he has been receiving many calls from other social agencies who are looking to him to meet needs.
“The situation is that I have been getting a lot of phone calls from people hoping that we are going to have a place for them to come in and warm up at night,” Locke said. “We have helped a few in the past here and there but we have gone past the occasional, the level of need has just skyrocketed this year.”
Uncertain what has caused the situation, Locke is nonetheless thrilled to meet needs and be able to offer a place for people to come inside, warm up and sleep in safety.
“Most of the homelessness is situational, it is circumstantial,” Locke said. “They are not career homeless. This is saving lives. It is a community effort and we all need to pull together.”
Locke is looking for volunteer shelter sitters to stay nights. The Family Shelter will provide the training. Sitters work shifts with another volunteer.
“If people could only do a four-hour night instead of all night we’ll work out the scheduling,” he said. “Anyone can do this, they just need a heart to serve. We don’t need any big bouncers, just people who care enough to make a difference in somebody’s life.”
On the nights of predicted cold, the intake will be from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., lights out at 11 p.m. and out of the church by 7 a.m.
“At 6:30 a.m. the alarm goes off with coffee, continental breakfast, and it looks like we may even have some sack lunches to go,” Locke said. “We just need to be out of there by 7 a.m. It is not going to be fancy but it will make a difference.”
Donations of cots, mats and blankets are welcome. The blankets will be single use as the Family Shelter does not have a way to wash and sanitize them.
“We’ll be giving the blankets away and people can take them with them for another night somewhere,” Locke said.
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Pet cages would also be helpful.
“It will be too cold to leave a dog out in the car or tied up outside,” Locke said. “If anyone has cages for inside we’ll be happy to have them. We could use small things to eat, like a small sack of oranges, peanut butter, bread, granola bars, Cheerios — simple things that we can hand out.”
To volunteer, text Gary Locke at 406-239-8833.
“Just leave your name and phone number, my voice mail is filling up fast,” he said. “I’ll build the list of volunteers from that before we do training. If they have questions they can call.”
Locke praised the Hamilton First Presbyterian Church for their heart for less fortunate.
“We want to give them a big thank you, yee-haw and hallelujah,” he said. “They are really stepping up and helping out. We really appreciate it. I can’t give enough accolades, it is really great that they are doing this. Thank you to all the congregation and all the folks at First Presbyterian, they really have a heart. This will save lives.”
First Presbyterian Church Reverend Patty Stone said her congregation is happy to help.
“We have the room and it seems like it is going to be a good fit for Gary and his needs,” Stone said. “The congregation is going to give it a try, especially since the temperature is going to be in the single digits this week. We are excited to be able to partner with him.”
The rooms set for the warming shelter are clean, cheery and comfortable. There is a restroom, a small kitchenette, space for cots and a room divider, if needed. In the future it may also be available for long distance cyclers.
The First Presbyterian Church congregation does have a heart for homeless as seen by the bags of high protein foods, hand sanitizers, forks, bottles of water and more that they keep in their cars to hand to any homeless person they see.
“Until the Chief of Police (Ryan Oster) came and told some local stories our congregation did not realize the immediate needs,” Stone said. “This is a wonderful big-hearted congregation that is older but very generous to meet needs.”
Locke said the Emergency Warming Shelter has zero tolerance for drugs, alcohol and weapons. The First Presbyterian Church is at 1220 West Main Street in Hamilton. Use the west entrance of the church to access the warming shelter.