“We are one of the few organizations (serving the homeless) in South Austin still open,” said Sarah Combs, volunteer coordinator of Sunrise Community Church’s Navigation Center in Austin, Texas. Sunrise, a Christian Reformed congregation, is in a critical position: “If we shut down, our clients would very likely not have food to eat and not be able to connect to services they need.”
In a normal week, Sunrise serves about 150 homeless people daily, Monday through Friday. The number is growing as other organizations shut down and as people lose their jobs and homes in the economic disruption around the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sunrise volunteers have the choice to stay home or to serve. The team includes six to eight people now, half its normal size. Volunteer Donna Jeffress has chosen to stay. “It’s about service here, and that’s where my heart is."
Each morning starts with prayer. As clients arrive Pastor Mark Hilbelink gives announcements through his new bullhorn.
Volunteers wear gloves and masks to prepare food. A dedicated food runner sets the meals up on tables outside. The food runner steps aside as clients approach to maintain physical distance.
Distance is hard for Sunrise, a church known for its acceptance and love. Extra space can communicate rejection to the clients, said Combs. They “already experience the general public not wanting to be close to them and not treating them like humans.” It is hard for volunteers: “everyone who is here has a lot of compassion and love for the homeless population.”
Sunrise’s Navigation Center operates by partnership, so as their partner organizations shut down, Combs must find new connections.
Medical care and social service partners are now offered through a tele-health connection. As caterers and restaurants close, individuals have filled the gap by cooking meals and donating. New organizations are stepping in as food sources; some are redirecting volunteers to Sunrise.
The City of Austin gave three handwashing stations and two portable toilets, essential items now the city’s public restrooms are closing. The City usually doesn’t reach out to faith-based organizations, said Combs, and “they are learning for the first time about what a lot of (faith-based) organizations are doing and have been doing for the homeless in our city. … I believe that after this experience it's possible that we will be more unified in helping.”
Combs is thankful for the skill of leadership at Sunrise, the bravery of volunteers, and the support of other organizations that are allowing the Navigation Center to continue serving people in essentials and in human to human connection during the COVID-19 outbreak.
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