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'Out of the Cold' Helps the Homeless in Happy Valley

by on January 24, 2020 11:05 AM

It was 34 degrees at 8 p.m., not too bad for a January evening in downtown State College.  But a strong breeze and a light rain—not to mention the dreariness of Calder Alley during semester break—combined to make things feel nasty. 

My wife and I had just arrived at Faith United Church of Christ to serve as first-time volunteers for “Out of the Cold: Centre County,” the shelter that moves from church to church throughout the winter, offering a safe harbor to those who lack homes. Kathy and I were both happy as we entered the warm building, for our sake and for the guests we would be serving.   

One of those guests had arrived a bit early and was just sitting on a curb to wait for opening time. “He had no umbrella, no protection from the rain,” recalls Kathy. “I felt sad as I wondered about his circumstance and the factors that had brought him to this point, so I was glad when we got someone to unlock the door.”

Yes, they’re called “guests,” and that word says a lot about Out of the Cold. They’re not “visitors,” they’re not “clients,” and they’re not “the homeless.”  

“A lot of organizations call people ‘clients,’” says Kendra Gettig, the board chairwoman for Out of the Cold. “We very intentionally call them ‘guests,’ and I think that speaks to our desire to be hospitable.” 

More of the evening’s guests soon entered the downstairs area of the church that is used by OOTC, and I found myself wondering how to relate to them. Would they be shy or friendly? Would they demonstrate gratitude for OOTC’s hospitality or resentment toward the volunteers who obviously have greater financial resources? Would most of them be hoping to make new friends or just curl up for a night’s sleep?

Kathy and I were there to serve as “host coordinators,” but in this context that meant we not only extended a warm greeting but we also registered each guest and made sure that each signed a form to promise compliance with OOTC’s rules (no weapons, no abusive language, no photos taken of other guests, etc.).


Kendra Gettig, shown here at an overnight shelter, is the board chairperson for Out of the Cold. Photo by Bill Horlacher

A HEARTY MEAL

After signing in, each individual was free to claim a cot before sitting down to a hearty meal of meat loaf, mashed potatoes and a prize-worthy slice of apple pie. I don’t think I saw anything green being served for this particular meal, but no one was complaining about that. 

More guests continued to enter, bringing our total to nearly 25. Kathy, the natural administrator in our household, handled the necessary bits of paper work, and I did my best to answer questions and offer greetings and smiles. As is typical with a new experience, I had a few moments when I wondered why I was there, but then I sat down to dinner with a 40-ish fellow named “Chris,” and suddenly I felt at home.  

Chris began to tell me his story, and I was glad to listen. Obviously bright and enthusiastic, he seemed eager to explain how he had ended up in a homeless shelter. I was certain he had been the victim of some mishap, mistake or misfortune, but it wasn’t my place to ask the “why” question. Yes, he really was our guest, and he was entitled to our respect. More about Chris later…

* * *

Prior to August 30, I had heard only a little about Out of the Cold. It was then that I enjoyed lunch with a new friend, Richard Spicer, who shares my interest in providing a warm welcome to the international students who arrive at Penn State each fall. Richard serves as student engagement coordinator for the Office of Global Programs, and he spearheads the International Student Orientation program. But long before he began serving international students, he developed a heart for others by serving Happy Valley’s least happy residents, the homeless.    

Richard’s mom, Donna Spicer, is the manager of the thrift shop for Faith Center, the faith-based community outreach effort for the Bellefonte area. No wonder that Richard responded to a 2012 appeal made by his church, the State College Assembly of God, for volunteers to serve with Out of the Cold.  “I had a heart for homeless people,” says Spicer, “and a compassionate feeling. I couldn't imagine living in that situation. And I really wanted to do what I could to help out.”

OOTC volunteers must be at least 18 years old, and Richard was just 17. So he asked his mom to accompany him, and together they served as OOTC overnight volunteers for three to four nights per year. Later, Richard also spent a year working for Housing Transitions, a nonprofit organization providing housing programs and supportive services to those in need throughout Centre County. Even today, Spicer and his wife Brenna still look for opportunities to serve with Out of the Cold. 

* * *

A TRAGIC DEATH

Only two and a half weeks after my lunch with Richard Spicer, another event tragically pushed Out of the Cold to the front of my mind. Beckie Romig, the program manager for OOTC and an advocate for Centre Country’s disadvantaged, died on September 17 at the age of 58.

Well-earned tributes followed Romig’s passing as the local media referred to her with adjectives like “dedicated,” “devoted,” “passionate” and “tireless.” Romig was a member of Calvary Church, one of the congregations that strongly supports Out of the Cold. 

“She was always positive, always encouraging, always hopeful, always believing the best,” said Stacey Sublett, Calvary’s Gathering Pastor in Boalsburg. “The love that she gave made our community a better place, and we’re going to miss her terribly.”

Many wondered if the death of a stalwart like Romig might strike a serious blow to OOTC’s viability. Says Jeff Stormer, parish administrator of Faith UCC and an OOTC board member, “She was doing a mountainous amount of work. But her former position has been broken down into three separate positions, roughly 25 hours per week each. And Beckie was really good at making sure she had volunteers in different realms who were well-trained. So her loss might have had a more devastating impact if she were not as organized and open to training volunteers.”

And so it is that Out of the Cold nears the midway point of its first winter without Romig. Things do seem to be going well as the ministry handles an average overnight attendance that’s grown from about 15 last year to about 25 this year. It’s clear that no one will forget Beckie Romig for a very, very long time, and the ministry’s continuing effectiveness is a testament to her skills and dedication.


Out of the Cold Centre County program manager Beckie Romig, standing outside St. Paul's United Methodist Church in State College in February 2019, worked with many others to provide a safe place for the homeless in the county. Photo by Vincent Corso/The Centre County Gazette

SO MANY CHURCHES

Out of the Cold was born in 2011 as a general response to Centre County’s growing homeless population and as a particular response to the death of a local man who was sleeping in a tent during winter and died of hypothermia. Four churches banded together to start OOTC, a tiny force when compared to today’s breadth of volunteer involvement.

“I think this is a story of how a community of people is wrapped around this program,” says Gettig. “Last year, we had about 1,100 volunteers coming from congregations in the community but also from Penn State organizations like fraternities and sororities. There are just a lot of people who are really committed to this program.”

Indeed, lots of people. And most of them come from an amazing assortment of sponsoring churches:  University Baptist & Brethren, Unity Church, St. Andrews Episcopal, Grace Lutheran, State College Presbyterian, Faith UCC, Good Shepherd Catholic, St. Paul’s United Methodist, Calvary Church, Russian Baptist, St. John’s UCC, Friends Meeting and University Mennonite. Those congregations all provide overnight shelter for two or three weeks each winter. (And a year-around day shelter is provided at St Paul’s on Mondays and Fridays; at Faith UCC on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.) In addition, Houserville United Methodist, The Valley and State College Evangelical Free are offering help without providing shelter.

Wow, I’m not sure we could get all 16 of those congregations to agree to form a softball league, but they are united in their desire to serve the homeless.  

“I think it’s really fun,” says Gettig, “that a bunch of churches that are very different can work together. I think it’s a church’s responsibility to take care of their community members. And a lot of these people have experienced significant trauma in their lives.”


Out of the Cold provides guests a place to sleep, a warm meal and much more. Photo courtesy Out of the Cold

SUCCESS STORIES 

Of course, the ultimate satisfaction for OOTC volunteers is to see lives enhanced and—in many cases—helped to become reestablished in homes. But according to Spicer, there’s more to that process than most people would expect. For example, he says, “It’s very hard to get an address without an address. You need an address just to fill out a form.” However, he notes that the State College community has resources to help, including the case workers who are available through Housing Transitions and Out of the Cold.

No wonder, then, that some of the most valued documents in Out of the Cold’s files are letters of thank-you from former guests who were “re-homed”:

  • “I used Out of the Cold in 2015…Out of the Cold—it was uplifting. It was a spiritual experience.  The volunteers, they were great. I got help, guidance, counseling. The volunteers, they reached out to all of us. We could pull them aside. They were genuine, loving, caring. They weren’t getting paid a dime. They were taking time away from their families, their jobs, but they were there for us…It was so much more than sleeping in a church…Today, my faith in the Lord is strong. God is so good. I belong to a church now. I have true friends. I’m no longer homeless. I don’t have that shame and guilt I used to live with. Dereliction, degradation, shame, guilt. None of us have to live like that.” — Vonni C. 

  • “My husband and I, we stayed with Out of the Cold for two years. We had a car accident. His spine was crushed, I had back injuries. Lost our jobs. We got five months behind in rent in our mobile home—got evicted… Out of the Cold is the best thing that ever happened to us. At first I didn’t want to talk about my problems. To be totally honest with you, without Out of the Cold, things would have been way different… At Out of the Cold, I got on meds to help with depression and anxiety. I learned to be more compassionate to other peoples’ problems—a good listening ear. Beckie gave us rides to appointments. She was like a second mom to me… We have our own place! In 2018 I was baptized. It changed my life. I have a whole different outlook on life now.” — Donna R.

And then there’s my new friend, Chris. He’s moving rapidly toward a new life and plans to move into a State College apartment in early February. A resident of Clinton County, Chris went through the heartbreak of a divorce and then fell into “situational depression.” He moved to South Florida in search of a new life, but his timing was bad—work was hard to find there in June of 2019. 

“I thought I was good,” he says, “but I wasn’t. I couldn’t make ends meet with two jobs. And when I’m by myself, I tend to get depressed.”

Chris found his way back to central Pennsylvania in mid-December, and he soon landed two solid jobs in State College. With free lodging and many meals provided by OOTC, he quickly worked to replenish his finances. Now bound for his own apartment, he can’t say enough good things about Out of the Cold.  

“They served really nice home-cooked meals every day,” notes Chris, “and everybody there was superbly nice. On Christmas Day (at the Presbyterian Church), it was like you were going to a restaurant. That’s how nice it was set up. And they gave me bus tokens (to get to his jobs) and they paid my (apartment) application fee. And if I need somebody to talk to, they offer that. I’m totally thankful.” 

NO MORE SHAME

As I thought about my brief exposure to Out of the Cold—and I hope that exposure will grow in the future—I sensed a change taking place in my attitude. The word “pride” kept coming to my mind, and for a while, that seemed peculiar.  After all, who is proud of a homeless shelter, a humble facility that’s typically housed in a grimy part of a city? And who is proud of a community that produces homeless people? And who is proud of the homeless themselves?  

But I did feel a sense of pride emerging within me as I thought about Out of the Cold. Pride toward the churches who have forged a partnership that transcends denomination. Pride toward the many volunteers who have given unselfishly to serve the homeless. And pride toward the guests who are seeking to overcome their circumstances and get back on their feet.  

I guess many of us might not place Out of the Cold as a marquee organization within Happy Valley. But maybe we should.

 



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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