Living in a city like Worcester, everyone’s life is touched by homelessness. I’ve seen encampments in our parks and by rivers. I’ve talked to people sorting through their belongings in our church garden. You may have members of your own family who have had to rough it, or had a rough time knowing where the rent was going to come from. We all need a place to call home, and we all have experience with the struggles and sorrows of people who lose that safety net.
I’ve been volunteering at a couple homeless shelters in Worcester for several years. I’ve met people who were working on sobriety and trying to be better parents to their children. I’ve met people with full time jobs who couldn’t afford rent. I’ve met women fleeing abusive relationships and people who, with the stability of a room in a shelter, could seek the mental health treatment they needed. What all of these people had in common was their essential humanity, the worth and dignity they share with every one of us.
At First Unitarian Church, supporting people experiencing homelessness has been part of our mission and ministry for a long time. We’ve helped members who were facing a housing crisis find a safe place to stay. Last spring, we made a $200,000 loan from our endowment to finance construction of affordable homes in Worcester.
There’s good evidence that the biggest factor driving homelessness in America is a lack of housing. In Worcester, we need more housing of every type, from supportive housing to rooming houses to apartments to rehabbing old triple-deckers to single family homes. Rents have risen faster than incomes over the last ten years, and today more than half our neighbors pay more than one-third of their income for rent. For those facing a housing emergency, we need shelter space to house them. This is where IHN comes in with its vital work in our community.
IHN is a shelter for families. It was formerly Interfaith Hospitality Network, and is now In the Hour of Need shelter. Unlike the state shelter system, which is gender-segregated, IHN allows families to stay together. Teenage boys can stay with their mothers. Dads can stay with their children. Couples can stay together. Queer families are not separated. IHN works with families to support them and help them find permanent housing. It is funded entirely through donations and relies on volunteer support from individuals and congregations throughout Worcester County.
If you want to get involved, there are many opportunities. Members and friends of First Unitarian Church provide evening and overnight coverage at IHN three weeks a year. Volunteering at IHN is easy and provides as much involvement as you want: you can stay in the shelter office, available in case of an emergency, or you can head upstairs to get to know the families staying there at the time. Children at IHN are usually eager to meet someone new. Contact Liz Gustavson at to learn more about volunteering.
To make a difference right now, I invite you to contribute to our Christmas Eve collection to support IHN. You can donate now by making an earmarked gift for our IHN collection, or bring your checkbook with you to the service at 5:30 on Christmas Eve. (You can also join us online for the Christmas Eve service.) First U will pay the fees associated with online giving so that 100% of your gift will support IHN. We raise thousands of dollars in this collection every year to support IHN’s housing mission. Your gift right now makes a difference.
On Christmas Eve I’ll preach about the community of people who surrounded Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. They were never alone. Today, people need our support to find safe and affordable housing. We can be the community in their hour of need. Please give today.
Rev. Sarah Stewart