NEW ALBANY — As Southern Indiana faces cold nights, a local nonprofit is offering overnight shelter and hot meals for the area's homeless community.
The Homeless Coalition of Southern Indiana's White Flag season began Friday evening. Until Jan. 5, it will operate its emergency shelter at The Center for Women and Families at 4919 Charlestown Road in New Albany, and it will move to its usual location at the Salvation Army Gym at 2300 Green Valley Road from Jan. 6 to April 15.
Phillip McCauley, interim director of the Homeless Coalition, said the organization has been working hard to find volunteers to serve at the shelter each evening it is open. McCauley took over leadership in September after Keeley Stingel, who served as director since June 2017, stepped down in August.
"Our objective is to have the shelters staffed adequately with some pretty dedicated volunteers," McCauley said. "Basically, our job is to keep people warm and fed."
This season, the Homeless Coalition is able to offer hot meals at both shelters. Last season, the White Flag shelter switched from hot meals to pre-packaged meals due to issues with the Floyd County Health Department, but they can now serve food donated by restaurants due to recent food handling and kitchen certifications, according to Celeste Cook, senior site captain for the White Flag shelter.
"That’s big this year, because last year, we had them go to soup kitchens before they came to the shelter, and then we were just providing them canned food, like a can of beans or a can of chili," Cook said. "This year, we’re really excited that we’re able to provide them food from the area’s restaurants. The community’s becoming more involved."
Nine restaurants have partnered with the Homeless Coalition to donate food to the White Flag shelter, including Sam's Food & Spirits, Mark's Feed Store, 8th Street Pizza, Rally's, Wendy's, Marco's Pizza, Bob Evan's, Dock Seafood and Fistful of Tacos. There will be hot meals for at least 13 nights, and the nonprofit is seeking additional meal donations for the season, according to Jess Tandy, the nonprofit's acting director of operations.
Providing hot meals helps form connections between the guests and the volunteers, Tandy said.
"So, last year we were serving canned, prepackaged food, and there just wasn’t a lot of bonding," she said. "There’s not really a connection between volunteers and guests. The year prior, I do believe they served hot meals, and there’s just more of a connection there. Volunteers had a better experience when they were able to serve meals, and guests could come in and sit around the table and just have a hot meal, relax and socialize a little bit."
The Homeless Coalition will announce its decision about whether to open the White Flag shelter by 3:30 p.m each day — the shelter opens based on volunteer availability and "white flag" weather conditions, or when temperatures are forecasted to be 35 degrees or lower for at least four consecutive hours between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Free shuttle rides will be available to transport guests from the parking lot of St. Marks' United Church of Christ in downtown New Albany to the Center for Women and Children, and guests will be dropped back off at St. Mark's around 7:30 a.m.
There are still 14 days without a team of volunteers scheduled to staff the White Flag shelter, and if the shelter does not have enough volunteers, it cannot open the shelter. Last year, the Homeless Coalition came close to not opening due to volunteer availability, but people stepped in during the last minute to operate the shelter, Tandy said.
She said the Homeless Coalition aims not only to offer temporary relief for residents, but also to connect them with resources they need, including services such as LifeSpring Health Systems.
"From the time I’ve been at the shelter, I’ve seen a very diverse population," Tandy said. "You see people that have cars, you see people who have jobs, you see families. It’s interesting, because when you really dig down deep, homelessness is more of a symptom of an underlying issues, whether it’s work-related or mental health or substance abuse or anything like that. So it’s really being able to connect them with help for the root of their problems."
Cook said their goal is to provide more than just a safe place to sleep.
"We want to get them services to help them get off the street," she said. "That’s our biggest goal — to end homelessness."