Bucks nonprofit prepares to shelter homeless during winter season

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There was a lot of work to be done at Emmaus Road Lutheran Church in Levittown last Thursday.

Volunteers stood behind the two vans parked outside, passing cots, boxes and storage containers in a human assembly line that went in the backdoor, down the stairs and into the church basement. Some were inside, organizing items onto shelves as they came in, others were setting up the cots, surprisingly a physically demanding task.

In total, there were 50 cots, 12 in one room for women and 38 in a separate room for men.

“I didn’t know that there were homeless in Bucks County like this,” said Karen Mineo, reflecting on the time before she was executive director of Advocates for Homeless and Those in Need.

The Bucks nonprofit has provided emergency shelter for the homeless in the winter when the temperature dips to 26 degrees or below, including wind chill, for the past eight years. When that happens, the nonprofit sends out a Code Blue notification via its website. Mineo said they’re eyeing Dec. 8 as the first potential date for a Code Blue.

When a Code Blue warning is issued, it’s called by noon. Eighteen trained volunteers are ready to come in, already registered for the night from the AHTN website. They work as bus drivers, attendants, intake staff, kitchen staff and in overnight shifts. Overall, there’s about 120 different volunteers registered through the season.

“If it’s too warm, then they get the night off,” Mineo said.

Last year, there were 44 nights when volunteers were called in for 166 homeless individuals, with a high of 54 guests in one night. In total, the program served 1,710 guests last season, and AHTN buses traveled 3,549 miles picking up the homeless and transporting them from designated pickup locations to church shelters.

Homeless individuals can check in on the website at local libraries, some of them also have cell phones and call into AHTN, Minneo said.

The location rotates every month. For December, it’s at the Emmaus Road Lutheran Church. In January, volunteers will set up at Woodside Church in Yardley. In February, it will be at Calvary Baptist Church in Bristol and then Emilie United Methodist Church in Levittown for March.

The host church for each month provides the space, a coordinator, a light dinner and breakfast. The volunteers with AHTN provide the rest.

Hank Merritt of Bristol Township has been volunteering since last October as a bus driver, and now is the transportation coordinator, along with his wife, Barbara.

The two actually met while volunteering for AHTN.

“When I met her the first time, I was driving the bus. I was the driver and she was the attendant,” he said.

Five months ago, they were married in one of the churches that holds shared meals for the homeless, Fallsington United Methodist Church, and even invited a busload of their homeless friends to join their wedding and reception.

A veteran of the Marine Corps, Merritt found that many of the homeless in Bucks County are also veterans and wanted to help out. He said he had no idea about the life circumstances of homeless people previously.

“A lot of people, if they never work with the homeless, think that they’re just too lazy to get a job or whatever, and they don’t realize that there are a lot of Americans that are one paycheck away from homelessness,” he said. “Some have substance-abuse problems or mental disabilities, but some of them just have unfortunate life circumstances and don’t have any family members to help them.”

Barbara Merritt has been volunteering at AHTN in various programs for about eight years. A self-identified “hugger,” she literally embraces each person who comes into the shelters.

She spoke about times she was hurt by the loss of some of her friends in the homeless community, and about the familiarity she has with some who come in year after year.

“After a while, when they get to know you, they really start becoming like part of your family,” she said. “They’ve had the same issues that we’ve had. They had a house. They had a mother and dad, brothers and sisters. Then somewhere in their lives there’s some sadness that started to develop.”

The Merritts and others setting up the December shelter all encouraged more people to get involved. The volunteer process includes an orientation session that takes about an hour and a half. One is scheduled for the beginning of January, and one in the beginning of February. There are also separate sessions for bus training. Those interested can also shadow current volunteers, and learn that way. All that information is available on the AHTN website.

“It’s rewarding,” Barbara said. “You give, but you get so much back. Everyone here is doing this because of a love for this organization.” ••

For information or volunteer opportunities, visit ahtn.org.

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