St. Joseph Cathedral Parish in Burlington will again host a Warming Shelter for homeless persons ages 18-24, beginning Nov. 1.

“The need for the Warming Shelter has been proven over the last two years of operation. Last year, the number of youth nearly doubled, with 45 percent of those youth accessing a Spectrum program for the first time,” said Mark Redmond, executive director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services in Burlington, the agency partnering with the cathedral in the warming shelter project. “With the housing shortage in the area, it is even more difficult for youth to gain permanent stable housing, due to a lack of rental history, credit and employment history. These factors, as well as many others, make the Warming Shelter a necessity in the community.”

Last year 58 youth received assistance at the shelter.

Besides being a warm, safe place to stay, the Warming Shelter provided the opportunity to get youth connected with other services, such as counseling, case management and other housing supports. “While not a mandatory part of the shelter, having the ability to easily connect people proved beneficial to many clients. In addition, the shelter provided the opportunity for people to regain stability and get back on their feet,” Redmond said.

Spectrum hires staff specifically to operate the shelter over the winter months.

“The shelter provides the opportunity to make positive peer connections,” Redmond said, noting that many of the youth that stay at the shelter for long periods of time become friends, and a sense of community forms.

“The support of the parishioners, Father [Lance]Harlow [cathedral rector], and the rest of the church community is felt on a daily basis. There are always ample donations of clothing, food and other necessities for the youth to access, and that makes a huge difference to them,” he added.

Members of the community donated snack food and drinks for evening snacks; some made occasional meals for the evening and some went in early to help cook breakfast in the morning. Others donated personal hygiene items and clothes. “I had three volunteers who worked making breakfast in the morning and numerous people and youth groups who donated snacks and personal hygiene items,” Father Harlow said. “There was a lot of interest by the Catholic community in Chittenden County because we are the only Catholic church that operates a homeless shelter in Vermont.”

The cathedral parish decided to collaborate again with Spectrum because the need for a warming shelter for that age group continues to exist. “We have had a very cordial working relationship with the Spectrum staff, and our immediate goals are the same: that is, keeping homeless youth from freezing during the cold winters in Vermont,” Father Harlow said. “The youth love staying at the Warming Shelter at St. Joseph. They feel very safe and secure there, but there is also the unseen experience of being in the sacredness of a church building. They are among their own age group and don’t have the additional stress of being mixed in with an adult population many of whom they are afraid.”

His ministry with the youth is twofold. On one level he took care of their physical health by providing food for breakfast and in the evening. “Most of them have very bad nutritional habits and live on junk food or go for days without eating because of substance abuse,” he said. “While food is available to them during the daytime and for supper at the Spectrum Youth and Family Services Drop-In program, the homeless youth are very disorganized and were often not present when food was available.”

The second level of Father Harlow’s ministry was talking with the youth — or, more especially, listening to them. “Homelessness, by its very nature, breeds distrust and betrayal. In the end, it’s ‘every man for himself.’ In the homeless community, loyalty is often coupled with betrayal and vulnerability with exploitation,” he said. “My interactions with them in the morning and in the evening gave them the opportunity to talk about their day, their lives and whatever stresses and joys they were experiencing. Some of the conversations could be very serious and at other times they could be just for fun.”

At the same time, the youth asked a lot of questions about faith and life. “They are all lonely and struggling with bad family situations so it was important for them to have an adult in their lives who listened to them and who also gave them good, moral advice,” Father Harlow said.

The Warming Shelter will operate from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. from Nov. 1 to March 30.

To see how you can help, call St. Joseph Cathedral office at 658-4333.

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