DANBURY — Each year about 33,000 people in Connecticut experience homelessness. And with winter temperatures dipping below freezing, First Congregational Church of Danbury doesn't think twice about opening its doors so at least some of the city's homeless can have a place to sleep.
For the past eight years the church has used its fellowship hall as a seasonal overflow homeless shelter. The shelter runs from November to April, depending on the weather, Rev. Laura Westby said.
It opens nightly at 9 p.m., gives coffee or hot coco to its 16 visitors, and then it's lights out at 10 p.m. Then, between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m., the shelter closes.
Annie Orr, 84, founded the shelter and keeps it running with the help of volunteers from various area churches and synagogues.
According to the church website, "We share the responsibility for working at the shelter with several other churches and synagogues in our area – a practice that makes clear to all who encounter these wonderful people that God is at work every day in our community. People who have lost their homes need to know this simple fact in order to regain the faith and strength needed to get back on their feet."
The volunteers sleep in the shelter with the 16 homeless and female volunteers are always paired with a male.
Orr doesn't sleep at the shelter, but opens it most nights and lives nearby in case there's an emergency.
"It's her baby, and these are her people," Westby said.
Currently Danbury has a handfull of homeless shelters, including the city shelter, Dorothy Day Hospitality House, Jericho Partnership Homeless Shelter and the shelter at First Congregational. The church, known by volunteers as "Miss Annie's Shelter" is allowed to house up to 16 people, but Westby said there are nights when the need is much greater.
She explained that many people don't realize how many individuals in the community don't have a place to call home and said it's the faith community's job is to help.
"It's what Jesus told us to do," she said. "I don't think you could live with yourself if somebody froze to death and you had a place for them to sleep."
Orr, a retired nurse, said she began the shelter in 2002 because she "couldn't stand to see people at night out in the cold." She's also been volunteering at Dorothy Day since the early 1980s.
She does it, she said, so she can help people Teresa (last name not given) – a 55-year-old woman who became homeless only a few months ago. Teresa went to art school, but eventually found herself working as a cocktail waitress to the pay the bills, and said her luck ran out in September.
"The hardest part about being homeless is seeing people get so cold," she said, as she settled into her cot at First Congregational.
It's especially hard to see women living on the streets, she added.
Westby said about four women sleep at the First Congregational shelter each night.
Those interested in helping the church shelter can donate hot cocoa and sugar to the church, 164 Deer Hill Ave., but added that perhaps the biggest help is to advocate for affordable housing.
For information on the shelter visit http://www.firstchurchdanbury.org/.
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