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Shelter could open in fall
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Michael Harrison, lead pastor at The Community Fellowship, said the church has purchased the former American Standard Building Systems property at 700 Commerce Court, and plans to move there. It also is considering the site for a planned homeless shelter, he said. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

It has been a rocky road, but a dedicated men’s homeless shelter may open in Martinsville as soon as October.

Michael Harrison, lead pastor at The Community Fellowship, said the church has purchased the former American Standard Building Systems property at 700 Commerce Court, Martinsville.

The church, which currently is located at 2674 Commonwealth Blvd., Collinsville, is planning to eventually move to that property and also is considering it as a possible site for the planned homeless shelter, though nothing is yet set in stone. Church officials are unsure when the church will move to the new location because they still are in the fundraising process.

“Our desire is that by the middle of October 2014, there will be a homeless shelter for men in this community,” Harrison said.

Ideally, he said, the shelter would accommodate as many as 24 homeless men. The estimated cost to build or renovate a facility to be used as a shelter, he said, is around $150,000.

Based on figures he has seen from other shelters, the cost of maintaining the shelter will be roughly $25 per person per day, which includes both lodging and food.

Harrison’s church has been trying for several years to establish a men’s shelter in Martinsville/Henry County, he said, but with most of the properties they have looked at, the same problem comes up.

Harrison calls it “NIMBY”: Not In My Back Yard. Previous attempts to create an area homeless shelter have been met with opposition from neighbors who do not want the shelter in their back yard.

The Commerce Court site, however, seems promising to Harrison. It’s relatively close to both uptown Martinsville and Collinsville, and because it’s not in a residential district, there aren’t many neighbors to complain.

“This is going to be a permanent homeless shelter,” Harrison said. “That means it’s open 12 months a year. And it’s not just a night shelter. The shelter in Danville as well as the Roanoke Rescue Mission are night shelters, where you come in at 5, 6 or 7 in the evening and leave by 7 or 8 in the morning. This would be full-time, 24/7.”

The goal, Harrison said, is not to give a homeless person a place to sleep for one night; the goal is to offer him the stability and support needed to find permanent housing.

“One of the things that we believe that the homeless shelter does is it gives people a break to get back on their feet,” he said. “This is the way I describe it: take a breath, sit back, don’t worry about what you’re going to eat or what you’re going to wear, and let’s get you together.”

Harrison and his church are not alone in their mission. Other churches and organizations already have worked with or partnered with them, and Harrison is hoping to pick up more partners as organizers draw closer to their goal.

Often, Harrison said, because people don’t see the homeless in Henry County and Martinsville, they assume homelessness isn’t a problem here. According to Harrison, that isn’t true.

“Homelessness looks different in Martinsville than it does in Richmond or Greensboro or even Roanoke,” he said. During the winter here, he said, many homeless people are able to stay with friends and family, perhaps sleeping on a couch or in a garage. Others stay in abandoned houses, buildings or trailers.

“This is not just theory,” Harrison said. “These are people that we’ve ministered to.”

“Martinsville does have homeless,” said Scott Philbrook of the Community Fellowship Board of Directors, “but they’ve learned to be invisible so that they can get the resources they need their way.”

“Most homeless people are suspicious of those that want to serve them,” Harrison added. “Most of the time, it’s because the law is looking to remove them from the piece of property where they’re staying.”

Every January, Harrison said, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires local agencies that serve the homeless to perform a “Point-in-Time” count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless nationwide.

On Jan. 30, Harrison’s group found around 30 homeless people in one section of Henry County and Martinsville. Although the final numbers are not yet available, Harrison estimates that there are roughly 60 homeless people in the city and county.

If the count were done during the summer, he said, that number would likely be much higher, because so many local homeless people find places to stay temporarily during the winter.

During the coldest days of this winter, the Community Fellowship and Salvation Army established overnight warming shelters for the homeless population. However, few came to the shelters, Harrison said.

The problem, he said, is consistency.

“Whoever shows up most in somebody’s life wins the battle of influence,” Harrison said. “If you’re not consistent in dealing with that population, they won’t trust you enough to come.”

Many in the homeless population suffer from mental illness, Harrison said, and in addition to that — or perhaps because of it — many also have problems with addiction. When those people come to the proposed shelter, they will be referred to area agencies that can help them with those issues, he said.

However, Harrison guessed that while mental illness and/or addiction may be problem for roughly 60 percent of the area homeless population, another 40 percent are homeless due to economic problems and chronic unemployment.

One homeless member of his congregation, Harrison said, moved to Minnesota on Jan. 30 “just because he couldn’t find work. He’s been homeless for the last two years. He had friends help him get to Minnesota.”

Harrison hopes that having a permanent, consistent shelter will help area homeless people get back on their feet and show them that they have worth.

“The number one way to find these people is to serve them on a continual basis,” he said. “My desire is to find the people that need to hear about the love of Christ and to do everything in our power to show them what it looks like.”

Those interested in partnering with Community Fellowship can contact the church at 647-8231.


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