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When the temperature drops below 40 degrees, a sign appears outside the First United Methodist Church of Bunnell: “Shelter open tonight.”
People come from as far as Daytona Beach for a warm place to sleep — from the nursing students, still in their uniforms from clinical courses, who stay up all night studying, to the out-of-work contractors.
The Sheltering Tree, a cold-weather homeless shelter, opened Sunday evening when, for the the first time this season, weather forecasts have dipped below 40 degrees.
The shelter meets a need First United Methodist’s pastor, Beth Pardner, and one of its members, Carla Traister, saw several years ago after they saw a person sleeping in the church’s doorway. That person inspired the pair to open The Sheltering Tree.
“It was very distressing for us to think that someone was sleeping outside the church when they could have been warm inside,” Traister said.
She knows what being cold feels like. She went without heat for a time when she was living north of Florida.
“It was very cold,” she said. “I just don’t ever want to be that uncomfortable again. I can’t imagine sleeping outside in that kind of weather, on the ground.”
Despite the difficulty, she said, she would never trade the experience. It gave her perspective.
“To me, homelessness is painful to see,” she said. “I just don’t see why, with as much as we have, it’s still a problem.”
The shelter is at the United Methodist Church of Bunnell and opens at 5 p.m. and, manned entirely by volunteers, serves dinner to local homeless people. The church also offers bathrooms with towels and soap, toiletries and clothing. Breakfast is also served in the morning.
When it first opened its doors in 2008, The Sheltering Tree hosted three guests. That number soon expanded, and now a typical night sees anywhere from 12 to 36 guests.
Traister hopes to see the shelter evolve into a drop-in shelter that’s open regardless of the weather.
Anyone can become homeless, she said, and getting out of that situation is difficult without resources.
“A lot of people are one pay check away from homelessness,” Traister said. “It happens to all kinds of people, especially those laid off.”
Once a person is homeless and can’t do laundry, shower regularly, or even list an address or phone number when applying for jobs, finding employment and becoming financially stable is almost impossible.
The envisioned drop-in center would have laundry facilities and other resources to help the homeless change their circumstances. But until enough funding is available for that, The Sheltering Tree is doing what it can to be a resource.
Although there are shelters for victims of domestic violence and families in Flagler County, The Sheltering Tree is the only place for individuals to seek refuge, Traister said.
So for now, on any but the 10 to 30 nights per year when the shelter is open — the nights when temperatures are cold enough — homeless people retreat to the woods or behind buildings, or wherever they can escape the wind.
Although Traister constantly looks for ways the shelter can help the homeless more, she knows The Sheltering Tree has made an impact. During the shelter’s short life, she’s watched many homeless residents find employment and permanent housing.
Most of those success stories, as she calls them, either donate money to the shelter or volunteer there.
The Sheltering Tree is at 205 N. Pine St. in Bunnell. To volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“(Homelessness) is something we need to fight,” Traister said. “It does take time and resources to do so, but it shouldn’t be ignored.”
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