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Night shelters help homeless cope with cold snap

Night shelters help homeless cope with cold snap

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Night shelters help homeless cope with cold snap

By Jenna De Marco | Jan. 22, 2010 {1127}

Five-year-old Ella Smiley is aptly named.

While the child’s smile warmed the hearts of homeless visitors staying in “Room At the Inn” at First United Methodist in Port Orange, their bodies were fed and sheltered from the cold weather.

Ella Smiley helps serve dinner to Bob and other guests staying at the “Room At the Inn.” Photo by Mike Ellis. Photo #10-1374.

Ella and her brother, Gavin, 9, helped serve dinner to the guests, volunteering with their parents, Jennifer and David Smiley. The Smiley family served at the shelter several times this winter because of a lengthy, statewide cold snap in January. The children’s innocence made their involvement all the more endearing, Jennifer said.

“There is no judgment (from the kids),” she said. “They don’t really get that anything is wrong with this. I think that that’s great for the people too, because they don’t want judgment or opinions. They just want a warm handshake or a hug or a playmate.”

The Port Orange church shelter is one of several United Methodist churches in the East Central District that opens when the nighttime temperatures are predicted to fall below 40 degrees. First in Bunnell, Pierson, Trinity in Seville and Pine Ridge Fellowship in Deltona also offer cold weather shelter.

The recent cold snap set or tied record low temperatures in some parts of Florida and lasted longer than typical, according to the Weather Channel Web site. Daytona Beach tied a record low of 28 degrees for Jan. 6, while nearby Orlando tied a record low of 29 degrees for Jan. 11.

The nightly lows in Volusia County led the Port Orange church to open its shelter almost daily for two weeks, volunteer Mike Ellis said. The church typically houses no more than 32 people at a time.

Shelter organizers work with Halifax Urban Ministries (HUM) of Daytona Beach to identify individuals in need of a warm place to sleep. The Rev. Troy Ray, who is a Florida Conference clergy member, is the ministry’s executive director. HUM works to meet the needs of the homeless and low-income populations in Volusia and Flagler counties.

At the Port Orange church, Ellis acts as a liaison with HUM, while other volunteers organize the shift scheduling and meal preparations.

“I’ve found a whole lot of people who have a heart for this, and I let them do their thing,” Ellis said.

Ellis is in his third year working with the ministry, which has been operating for more than 15 years at his church. “It is Christ compelling me to do this. … I am merely trying to be obedient,” he said.

Cots and guests escaping the cold line the fellowship hall. Photo by Mike Ellis. Photo by Mike Ellis. Photo #10-1375.

Many volunteers come to the ministry without much connection to a church, Ellis said, describing the ministry as an “entry point” for volunteers seeking service opportunities. People outside the church seem attracted to cold weather ministry for the homeless, he said, because it embodies “what Jesus asked us to do: serve the poor, reach out to the broken, love the unlovable.”

During the recent cold weather, Ellis used social media, such as Twitter, to communicate information about the shelter. He has more than 1,700 “followers” who received his “tweets” and photos of the ministry. Christie Hyde of Daytona Beach was one of them.

Hyde, who works as a national spokeswoman for AAA auto club in Seminole County, is busy with work, but wanted to help the shelter in some way. As one of many Floridians unaccustomed to the chilly weather, she purchased clothing and gathered other donations and supplies.

“We’re just so not used to (the cold), and I couldn’t imagine being out on the street right now, and the type of weather we’ve been having is unbelievable for this part of the country,” she said.

More than shelter

During their overnight stay at the church, guests receive a homemade dinner and dessert and space to sleep. In the morning they have breakfast.

The kitchen volunteers do an “amazing job, and the homeless just rave and rave about the food,” requesting second and third helpings, Ellis said.

This year, more people from the surrounding area have been showing up just for dinner and a brief chance to get warm, Ellis said, although they may not always be homeless. “I’ve not seen it like I’ve seen it this year,” he said.

The church provides night security volunteers in three- to five-hour shifts, with one volunteer staying the whole night. That volunteer is Charles (who requested e-Review maintain his anonymity by excluding his last name).

Charles is the first to serve the food and the last one to eat, Ellis said. He’s also the first to set up sleeping mats and the last to lie down. But Charles remains humble, crediting other volunteers and saying, “I’m just a small part of this.”

“They had actually helped me out in a time of need last year and … (I) wanted to come back and help,” he said.

Calvin and his mom grab a bite to eat. Photo by Mike Ellis. Photo by Mike Ellis. Photo #10-1376.

Among the various shelter guests, there has been an Iraq war veteran with a talent for playing the guitar and a homeless mother with her two children. The two children were “so appreciative … and so sweet” about receiving a few used toys while there, Ellis said.

“You can be as cynical as you want to be about homeless adults, but there’s no way you can be cynical about homeless children,” he said.

The church budgets $1,000 for the “Room” ministry, according to shelter volunteer coordinator Laura Lewis. But additional money frequently comes in from people wanting to help, adding to the available funds, she said.

More information about HUM and First United Methodist Church in Port Orange is available at and, respectively.

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.