Covering the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol with homemade blankets and quilts wasn’t the recent effort of a national quilting organization.
Instead they were part of the Homeless Memorial Blanket Project, half art installation, half call to action. Its organizers, among them the Lower Susquehanna Synod, chose Dec. 21—the longest night of the year—to display the blankets, which they hoped would raise people’s awareness of those who don’t have adequate housing and have even died from lack of shelter.
Laid out side-by-side, the blankets represent the efforts of people who tried to make a difference, said Matthew Best, a synod pastor and the Blanket Project’s co-coordinator.
“To me, the blankets are the symbolic act of love,” Best said. “You want to talk about welcoming the stranger and loving the stranger! Every blanket tells the story of the people who made them and invested themselves in the blankets, and they have gone to folks—to families, to individuals—who have stories as well.”
The blankets “kept speaking while they were laid on the West Lawn on the Capitol, and they were speaking to the legislators in the Capitol building,” he continued. “Every single one of those blankets [was] telling a story of love in a quiet kind of way.”
Though the project wasn’t a specifically Christian event, numerous churches across the country joined in, Best said. Each volunteering body was asked to create 100 quilts: 10 to send to Washington, D.C., and 90 to distribute to local shelters or agencies that advocate for those experiencing homelessness.
“Each blanket and quilt carries a message quite clearly.”
“The goal was to have … 10 blankets from each state, so 500 blankets,” he said. “That was a pretty big goal, all handmade, to raise awareness around homelessness.”
Ultimately, 1,179 blankets were displayed on the Capitol lawn, donated by blanket-makers from 47 states. The quilts were then distributed to local people who are unstably housed and to homeless agencies.
A week prior to this, Best and volunteers conducted a “dry run” of the display by laying down 95 blankets on Walker Court in front of the Washington National Cathedral, which also had supported the Homeless Memorial Blanket Project.
“[Not long ago], we were remembering Reformation Sunday and Martin Luther and his 95 Theses at a different church,” Best wrote in a personal blog post about the National Cathedral display. “[Ninety-five] statements intended to raise questions and cause a debate within the church. In a similar way, these 95 blankets and quilts are intended to raise questions and cause a debate, make a stir, unsettle the comfortable status quo in our nation when it comes to homelessness.
“This is our 95 theses. And while our statements don’t have words on them, each blanket and quilt carries a message quite clearly.”
Government can’t do it alone
Just two days before blankets decorated the West Lawn, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness released “All In: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness,” which has an end goal of reducing homelessness 25% by 2025.
Within that document, several statistics stand out.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “on any given night, more than half a million people sleep in shelters and unsheltered places not meant for human habitation, such as cars and encampments.”
Further, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council found in 2018 that “5,800 deaths are known and upwards of 46,500 deaths among PEH (persons experiencing homelessness) are estimated, which highlights the vast, and largely hidden, scale of homeless deaths in the U.S.”
Ecumenical by necessity
In 2004 four homeless individuals in Fairfax County, Va., died from hypothermia. The following year, local congregations created the Hypothermia Prevention Program, with the goal of ensuring that no one would have to sleep outside during the coldest months.
Arlene Darke is a member of Lord of Life Lutheran in Fairfax, one of the program’s founding congregations. “Churches got together to say, ‘We can’t let this happen again; what are we going to do?’” she recalled. “It was a few churches saying, we’ll open our doors at 6 o’clock at night, and people can come in and sleep on the floor if they want. Then the county government got involved and asked [the local organization] FACETS to organize the churches into something more comprehensive.”
FACETS, partially funded by the county government, oversees the multiple faith communities in Fairfax that take turns housing the overflow from the county’s shelters. According to Fairfax County, that number reaches an average of 215 people nightly.
“We’re a very prosperous county,” Darke said. “That makes housing very expensive here. And that’s really the root of the problem, that affordable housing is so lacking that people become homeless.
“Our county has a policy of ending homelessness, and they actually work very hard toward that. A lot of people have been rehoused in the last few years, but it seems like there’s always more, so it seems that ending homelessness is problematic.”
“Churches got together to say, ‘We can’t let this happen again.”
The Hypothermia Prevention Program runs from December through March. Host churches volunteer their facilities for a week at a time, providing guests with meals and evening activities and arranging space for social and health care workers to meet with them “to get them on track to better housing,” Darke said.
During the coldest weeks the spike in those needing shelter makes it nearly impossible for just one congregation to tend to all guest housing and nutritional needs, so two churches house guests and additional congregations help provide meals.
As Darke points out, the hypothermia program is ecumenical by necessity. “There is not a church in this area that is in a position to dedicate their entire facility the whole winter,” she said. “It has to be [ecumenical] for the scope that we have to deal with here. I personally am a great believer in ecumenicism. I think forming partnerships with faith communities of all denominations is the way to go.”
For example, St. James Lutheran Church of Lake Forest, Ill., volunteers with PADS Lake County (“Providing Advocacy, Dignity & Shelter”), a nonprofit that offers resources and emergency shelter to those experiencing homelessness in Lake County, north of Chicago.
“We have a lovely church building, but we don’t have a big kitchen or showers,” said Alane Wanda, co-chair of St. James’ social ministry outreach committee. “We’re not equipped to house or staff a night as a shelter.”
“They’re treated with respect, and people get to know their stories.”
Instead the congregation coordinates its volunteer efforts with First Presbyterian Church of Libertyville, a nearby host church for PADS.
“We serve dinner once a month,” Wanda said. “We have confirmation students involved; they sign up to serve at one of our dates during the season. They can start that service component of what it is to be part of a faith community.”
PADS also has a day resource center, and the St. James women’s group often provides lunches for the center.
“When you’re a smaller church, it makes sense to put your efforts through an organization that’s already doing something and has a template for doing something,” Wanda said.
Giving a face to the unhoused
For the last seven years, Christ the King Lutheran Church in West Chester, Ohio, has volunteered with Family Promise, a national organization providing solutions for families who are unstably housed.
“Houselessness is a problem all over the United States; we just don’t always want to open our eyes to people’s needs,” said Matt Byrd, pastor of Christ the King. “I think the most effective thing we’ve found is, rather than try to take on all these problems ourselves, with our combined theology of grace and service, we are able to maximize our impact.”
In Butler County, where Christ the King is located, multiple congregations volunteer to share the responsibility of providing housing and meals to guests.
“Many of the folks who are in the program … are newly unhoused,” Byrd said. “They’re experiencing houselessness for the first time, usually through no fault of their own. When COVID hit and the economy [declined], people were getting laid off because goods and services were not being purchased.”
“With our combined theology of grace and service, we are able to maximize our impact.”
During their host weeks, Christ the King and the other participating congregations provide families with meals during the week and a place to sleep every night. Guests leave the church by 6 a.m. and spend days at the local Family Promise center to receive training and help with job placement.
“This really is a fantastic program that helps us live out the gospel in tangible ways,” Byrd said. “It gives a face for houselessness. [Guests] stop being ‘those people’ and [volunteers lose] the sense of, ‘If only they’d get a job.’ Many are working two to three jobs but don’t have a working wage. … The best thing that happens is the people who come and stay in the congregation feel like they’re humans, and they’re treated with respect, and people get to know their stories.”
Volunteers see how the program not only helps preserve people’s dignity but also breaks the cycle of poverty, Byrd said.
“The best part about the whole program is we know we are partnering with other congregations in the community, so the burden doesn’t solely rely on us, but we can contribute,” he said. “Four times out of the year we have to give up all of our classrooms and storage space. It’s a pleasure to know people are going to be safe, warm and welcome.”
Helping unhoused fathers
When the program Almost Home @ St. John’s was founded at St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, the nonprofit operated the Guest House, a seasonal emergency shelter for men in and around Dubuque, Iowa.
It also ran the Open Closet, which provided free clothing, shoes and hygienic and household items to families.
The Open Closet continues to aid more than 4,000 people each year. But in the last year, Almost Home has transitioned into a different kind of shelter—one specifically for homeless single men with children.
Retired program director Gwen Kirchhof “saw a need that no one was facing,” said Brock Timmons, who took over as executive director in December. “She was noticing frequently … that fathers were asking for places to stay—places for them and their children.”
Shelters often provide space for single women, single men, or mothers and children. Fathers and children, however, have almost nowhere to go, Timmons said.
“Fathers were asking for places to stay—places for them and their children.”
When Kirchhof first investigated the issue, the closest shelter she could find that would take fathers and children was on the other side of the state, in Sioux City, Timmons recalled.
“The mission [of Almost Home is] so powerful: the idea of really meeting [a need] that is unmet in society at large,” he said.
Almost Home currently has room for two fathers and their children, and the organization is building rooms for three additional fathers and children, Timmons said. Each father is given a rough estimate of three months to stay in housing provided at St. John.
Fathers also receive access to multiple resources, he said. Almost Home gives referrals to a food pantry across the street, sets them up with Iowa Legal Aid, provides a budgeting class with a local bank and offers additional services to help them navigate being inadequately housed.
“We didn’t want to be just a shelter where we give them a bed and that’s enough,” Timmons said. “We’re in the business of building lives. … We help them dig out of that hole, so when they do get stable housing, they’re prepared, they know how to budget now. The last thing you want is they get on their feet and then they get knocked back down.”
Serving the unhoused through worship
Cathedral in the Night (CITN), a congregation under development in the ELCA, doesn’t house those experiencing homelessness. It doesn’t have a building to do so.
Rather, this missional community in Northampton, Mass., which meets on the front steps of First Churches of Northampton, focuses on providing a spiritual home for everyone, regardless of their housing situation.
Its Sunday evening services—and complimentary meals—are always outside.
“We’re really intentional about being outside,” said Stephanie Smith, a pastor of CITN. “In this way we are guests in their space instead of welcoming people into our space. People feel safer and more welcomed. Doors unintentionally say to people that they have to believe something to belong. Being outside gives us the freedom to welcome everyone just as they are.”
“Church is supposed to be whatever the community needs it to be.”
“The area we live in is a very progressive part of the country as far as LGBTQ issues,” added Dawn Orluske, a CITN minister and a member in discernment with the United Church of Christ. “We get a lot of LGBTQ youth, trans youth, kicked out of their home who are unhoused.”
CITN was formed in 2010 by the ELCA, the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church, which provided the congregation with a grant.
“Our passion ended up being, how do we create a safe place for people unchurched or de-churched … especially for young adults,” Smith said. “If it wasn’t grounded in something that made the world a better place, they wouldn’t [take part in] it. That’s why it’s outside, right on Main Street in downtown.”
CITN realized that providing a meal would be an immensely beneficial part of worship for the community. So, after a service in which everyone is invited to participate, gatherers share communion and then head straight to dinner together.
“Church is supposed to be whatever the community needs it to be,” Smith said. “And if it’s traditional, that’s great. But if it’s outside so people feel more comfortable, then that’s great too.”