Each week from the end of November until early March, the Interfaith Rotating Winter Shelter (IRWS) of Davis settles at a different faith-based organization to provide homeless guests with a warm meal and temporary protection from the winter cold.
Now in its fourth year, the IRWS supplements the only permanent homeless shelter in Davis, Davis Community Meals, which is only able to provide 12 emergency beds. Run completely on donations and volunteer work, the IRWS provided shelter for 105 homeless guests last season with the help of almost 800 volunteers.
For guests, the evening begins at an intake center downtown where volunteer staff complete behavior assessments before guests are driven over to the location for that week.
Upon arrival at the shelter, guests select a cot and are given their sleeping bags for the evening. Some immediately lie down, while others prefer to socialize with the other guests and volunteers. Dinner is served around 6 p.m., and is usually followed by a movie or games. Lights are out at 10 p.m.
Most evenings there are about 20 guests, though last year’s record was 38. Both guests interviewed wished to remain anonymous.
One guest, a 34-year-old male, has been homeless for over 10 years.
“I appreciate everything,” he said, pausing frequently. “Sometimes I seem unappreciative, but I’m not. Sometimes I just get so confused because there’s a lot that I did when I was young because I had the choice to do it, but it affected me later in life.”
Another guest, a man in his 70s, easily conversed about the university’s budget reforms and U.S. foreign relations. He said he earns some money by tutoring students from abroad in English and during the day will often spend time at the library.
Once a property-owner in Davis, he became homeless in 2002 after deciding that his retirement money could not suffice for both his housing expenses and the money he sends to friends abroad. Though he appreciates the shelter’s services, he said that for some of the guests additional help is needed.
“I feel that my ability to deal with this is such that I don’t need special services beyond what the shelter offers. But perhaps there’s a need for some sort of connection between the shelter and mental health because there are people who have a difficult time dealing with the stress of being homeless … I haven’t seen that kind of services here,” he said.
Linda Scott, the intern director for the IRWS, said new volunteers are often surprised by some of the guests that stay at the shelter.
“It’s a last resort,” she said. “It’s usually economic, but also sometimes they have behavioral issues that makes it hard to have a job. Some people do work, but sleep in the shelter because they don’t have enough money to make rent. This year, we had students that go to class. We even had a campus employee.”
Scott, who is the health sciences coordinator at UC Davis, runs the shelter’s intern program. Consisting of 16 UC Davis students, the program begins in fall quarter and lasts through winter.
Mario Sepulveda, a junior animal science major and current IRWS intern, said his favorite part of the program is getting to know the guests.
“Everyone has really interesting backgrounds and stories,” he said. “It’s almost like reading a book – it’s unbelievable some of the things they’ve done and been through. I’m thinking about volunteering even after the program ends.”
The IRWS is always looking for more volunteers, especially people to stay overnight at the shelter. Two people are present for each overnight shift and can take turns sleeping before waking guests up in the morning. The nights are almost always uneventful, with emergencies very rarely taking place – many student volunteers even use the time to study.
“Spending the night begins to show you what they go through,” said Brock Galvin, an intern and senior sociology major. “We don’t want to sleep on a cot for one night, but these people are pumped to.”
Jenna Templeton, UC Davis alumna and current co-chair of the IRWS, said working with the homeless has been a transformative experience.
“The shelter made me aware of how often we tend to take things for granted, even if we purposely try not to,” she said. “Do yourself a favor and take an hour each week to volunteer to help the homeless. It will make a huge different in their lives and your own.”
Homelessness remains a growing problem in Davis and Yolo County. In 2009, Davis was reported as having 114 homeless individuals, up from 86 individuals in 2007, according to the Homeless Census Data Report done by The Yolo County Homeless and Poverty Action Coalition (HPAC).
Included in this number were nine families with children, accounting for 32 of the people.
In early 2010, Yolo County approved a 10-year plan to end homelessness titled, One Piece at a Time: Ending & Preventing Homelessness in Yolo County. The last meeting for the assigned committee recorded on the website occurred on Sept. 23.
Speaking of the plan, the older guest said, “The reality is if you want to end this there needs to be a lot more work done. The people at the shelter are doing a lot, where’s everyone else? The federal government, the state, the county? These people are here; they’re here, now deal with it.”
MELISSA FREEMAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.