BARRE — A Methodist church that provides overflow lodging for the local homeless shelter has offered the help for another year on the condition that the shelter tackle concerns about bedbugs.
Hedding United Methodist Church leaders are afraid homeless people who stay overnight in their building could spread bedbugs to parishioners, according to a church leader. And that’s prompted the Good Samaritan Haven to look for an alternative site and grant money to support an overflow space for emergency lodging.
The Haven has used the church for back-up lodging during previous winters. But according to the shelter’s executive director, Kim Woolaver, the new stipulation requires the shelter prevent bedbug exposures at the church to the best of the shelter’s ability.
Good Samaritan officials say the fear of bedbugs infesting their own shelter or an assisting facility are misplaced.
“We’re pest-free,” Woolaver said. “We spend a tremendous amount of money ensuring that we’re pest free.”
And rather than use the church under the proposed requirement, Woolaver said she was unwilling to have the shelter risk having an incident arise.
The church overflow space is needed when the shelter exceeds out its permitted capacity. According to Woolaver, zoning allows the Good Samaritan Haven to provide 26 beds in the shelter and four cots in its dining area. To prevent turning people away during winter nights, the shelter and church began the overflow arrangement three years ago.
A meeting room in a lower level of the church, located on Washington Street, has allowed from seven to ten people on average to stay there overnight. As many as 14 people have needed the extra lodging at once.
Hedding UMC’s outreach minister, the Rev. Renny Azotea, said if bed bugs spread to parishioners, people won’t come to church. He said if the shelter used the church space again this winter but created a bedbug problem, Hedding UMC would have to stop offering the extra lodging until the problem was fixed.
Azotas added that when the shelter has used the church in the past, there have never been any problems with bedbugs.
The shelter, however, has suggested that having a standard of doing everything possible to avoid bedbug problems was not feasible for them.
Despite the awkwardness of the situation, the church is continuing to work with the shelter. Azotea said church leaders are seeking to create a day program that could help visitors with life skills that might help improve their circumstances. The shelter itself is closed from morning to evening, which creates a significant burden for many guests during extreme weather conditions.
The church has also invited the Good Samaritan Haven staff to talk again.
The shelter has used the church’s space for two of the previous three winters. Last winter, the number of people staying overnight did not warrant the need for additional lodging.
But high numbers of lodgers at the shelter in recent months has the Good Samaritan Haven concerned that emergency overflow space will be needed this year.
“So far this year, we have been at capacity pretty much all summer long, and that puts me in the position to believe we will be turning people away because we won’t have any empty beds,” Woolaver said.
Compounding the issue is having a small number of volunteers. The church coordinates attendants to remain with guests during the night, and in the past, Hedding UMC has only had about three people available, Azotea said.
The church would like to have around five or six people available to help.
At the shelter, helpers are also feeling volunteer fatigue. One overnight attendant helps out more than 10 nights each month; another person volunteers for seven nights a month, and another key volunteer stays four times each month.
If a person volunteered even one night each month, that would help, Woolaver said. Volunteers stay overnight, and help with activating a security alarm and ensuring lights are out by 11 p.m. An overnight commitment lasts from around 9:30 p.m. to 7 a.m.
As part of the church’s outreach efforts, the overflow space has been available for free.
The shelter still hopes to find an alternative location. As has been done in the past, the shelter would provide cots and would clean the bedding.
But because the setup would last for only about four months, the expense of renting an alternative back-up site is costly, Woolaver said.
As of Friday, Woolaver had reached out to representatives of about seven alternative locations, including vacant buildings, but she said no one had returned phone calls.
The overflow space would require room for about 15 to 20 cots, and the shelter is hoping to find a place that also includes amenities for showers and meals.
“We would heat it, we would clean it, we would pay the utilities, we would get a washer and dryer,” Woolaver said, “And we would have protocols in place as far as ensuring and minimizing the potential of bedbugs.”
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