FREDERICK -- The concept of the church as sanctuary has been resurrected in Frederick, as religious organizations have banded together to offer shelter for the homeless on harsh winter nights.
In a cooperative program between a county homeless task force and religious leaders, two churches and the Salvation Army are offering shelter on a rotating basis for those who might otherwise suffer through a freezing night on the city streets.
The only shelter that operates in the city is the Frederick Union Rescue Mission, a 50-bed facility that fills up quickly on cold nights and has strict regulations for its population. Last year, homeless advocates here despaired when they found people sleeping in abandoned cars, buildings, sheds or other unheated makeshift shelters.
Carol G. Springer, a supervisor with the Frederick County Department of Social Services and head of the task force, said they did not want a repeat of those life-threatening conditions. She estimated that the city has about 150 homeless people on any given night.
"We, as a county, have been really struggling with where to shelter these people on cold winter nights," she said. "We set up a meeting in the fall with several key religious leaders in the community, presented them with the dilemma, and they made the offer. If the government was there to assist them, they would open their doors and provide volunteers."
The Evangelical Reformed Church-United Church of Christ, the Frederick Presbyterian Church and the Salvation Army are offering space for the effort.
The shelter, which opened Dec. 27, is now housed in a meeting room in a downtown building owned by the Evangelical Reformed Church. It will remain there for a month, then move on to the Frederick Presbyterian Church for another month and then wind up for the final stay at the Salvation Army.
All are downtown locations and within walking distance of the soup kitchen at the Frederick Community Center on South Market Street, where many homeless in the city go for dinner.
As part of this new program, the Salvation Army has started serving breakfast for the homeless. This means that in Frederick, homeless people can get a hot dinner, a place to sleep, and a hot breakfast the next morning.
"It's been a great community effort, with the government and the religious community pitching in to make a difference," Ms. Springer said.
Capt. Mark Satterlee of the Salvation Army also praised the cooperative effort. "The wonderful thing about it is that we are all working together to try to solve this problem," he said. "We're all working together for a common good."
The shelter housed 13 people the first night, including a couple of motorists stranded by a snow storm that night, Ms. Springer said. They have had an average of about eight people a night, mostly single men and a handful of single women. Families who are homeless are put up in motels by the county social services department.
The shelters can accommodate up to 20 people. The doors open at 6:30 p.m. and close at 7 a.m., she said. The shelters are supposed to be open when the temperature drops below 25 degrees at night, during snow and freezing rain or when the weather is cold and windy.
However, the shelter has been available nearly every night since it first opened.
"The first night we were open was the night of that first snowstorm that we had and it felt good to know that there was a place now for people to get out of the storm," Ms. Springer said.
Frederick County has given about $13,000 for the program, which pays for security guards, one of whom is at the shelter each night, and for cleaning and other services. Though a security guard is on watch, no problems have yet been reported, Ms. Springer said.
Volunteers are helping from a number of area churches, Ms. Springer said. The volunteers help the homeless get settled into the shelter, help out with any questions or problems, get people up and out in the morning and make sure the place is in order and the blankets sent out to be cleaned.
David G. Beeson of Jefferson was volunteering his time one night recently at the shelter. As four men in one room slept, read or just stared at the ceiling while lying on their cots, Mr. Beeson was in the next room in an office, waiting to greet any others looking to come in from the cold.
"It's a good program," he said. "It fills a need for some people that couldn't get shelter anyplace else. By no stretch of the imagination is it a solution, but for what it is, it's good. People have a warm place to sleep that might otherwise be on the street."
Frederick is close to breaking ground on a new shelter next to the community center. But that shelter is only supposed to handle homeless families -- not the population that the rotating shelter plan is serving.
The program needs more volunteers, Ms. Springer said. They have about 20 people to call on now, but because of the success of the shelter, they need more, she said.
One positive side effect of the program has been the ability for social service providers to make contact with homeless people they might have not been able to reach if they were on the streets.