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Updated: Saturday, 22 Sep 2012, 4:32 PM EDT
Published : Saturday, 22 Sep 2012, 4:32 PM EDT
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) - Volunteer burnout has led to the closing of one Bloomington homeless shelter and a possible cutback in service nights at another, and the homeless individuals being served may be largely to blame.
Jim Hart, an Interfaith Winter Shelter board member, said the shelter is in a desperate situation as it prepares to begin its Oct. 15 through April 15 season.
"We're scrambling for more volunteers and more sites, and want to make the community aware we need help," Hart told The Herald Times . "There's been an increase in belligerence and a sense of entitlement among some of our guests. I think that has put off a lot of volunteers and caused them to quit. Some volunteers have told us we shouldn't accommodate a few disruptive individuals at the expense of those who want to behave themselves."
Hart said the negative attitudes and disruptive behaviors of some shelter users present well-meaning volunteers with a moral dilemma.
"Most are there because of their religious ideals and a feeling of compassion for the guests," he said. "They don't want to be cops or prison guards, but neither do they want to be naive sentimentalists by allowing a handful of bellicose guests to allow everything to go to hell."
He said the check-in shift — during which volunteers admit people and assign them cots — can be particularly troublesome.
"Some of the guests use very foul language, or bring with them some of the animosities they've accumulated during the day," he said. "They might get into a scuffle as they jostle for position while waiting in line, or complain that there's not enough coffee or the rolls aren't tasty. The volunteers want to be compassionate and show unconditional love, but that doesn't require them to be doormats. I think there comes a time when a volunteer can say, 'You're out of bounds. You may not appreciate what I'm doing, but you can't disrespect me.'"
David Schilling, president of the Interfaith Winter Shelter board, acknowledged there were occasional flare-ups last year at the First Christian Church site where he volunteered as shift leader.
"We tried to do a better job clamping down on that type of behavior so we could nip it in the bud," he said, adding that the check-in shift tends to be more problematic than the others.
"The later shifts are a cakewalk because the guests are asleep," he said. "When you wake them up they might be a little grumpy, but it generally goes pretty smoothly."
Schilling stressed that each site is supposed to have an on-site coordinator and shift leader designated to handle disciplinary issues.
"If they see an argument starting between two guests, they will ask them to calm down, and that usually works," he said. "We don't want our regular volunteers involved in these issues."
Schilling said if someone shoves, yells at or takes a swing at someone else, the person is immediately asked to leave. If someone is talking so loudly that it's disrupting other people's sleep, the person is told to either quiet down or leave the shelter.
"We are here to provide a warm, safe place for people to sleep," he said. "If someone is interfering with that mission, they need to find another place to sleep."
Schilling said a total of 413 individuals volunteered at least once at one of the Interfaith Winter Shelter's four sites last year, but said it was often a struggle finding enough volunteers to staff each three-hour shift between 7:30 p.m. and 7:30 a.m.
"We are shooting for 400 volunteers this year, or a smaller number of volunteers willing to be very active," he said. "The number of our student volunteers really fell off last year, but we're hoping to get more students involved this year."
Hart said he feels some of the student volunteers quit last year out of fear.
"It can be intimidating for students when an altercation arises, or when someone stumbles over or pukes on another guest who's sleeping — creating an explosion," he said. "Those are rare occasions, but they happened enough times to cut down on our student volunteer numbers."
Schilling said the number of shelter users last year was 10 to 15 percent higher than the previous year, and he expects even more folks to come to the shelter this year.
Hart said that despite all the challenges, the Interfaith Winter Shelter is providing a crucial service to the community.
"It has to be done," he said. "We don't want people sleeping outside in sub-freezing weather. If we don't do it, who will?"
The Rev. David Woodcock, pastor of the Genesis Church, which runs the Genesis Summer Shelter, said the shelter will permanently close after it completes the final night of its annual six-month summer season on Oct. 15.
"Our volunteer base has really dropped off," Woodcock said of the seven-night-a-week shelter. "We're running on a skeleton crew right now. We're pretty well spent."
Woodcock said the church originally planned to keep the shelter open just one year, but kept it going for three years.
"I think we've run it well," he said.
"We've never had a major incident. We love the people we served. I think we had respect for them and they had respect for us."
Woodcock said the declining volunteer numbers are largely attributable to people's busy summertime schedules, and the fact that college students return to their hometowns during the summer. That leaves a small pool of volunteers who are fatigued, he said.
"We've given it our best shot, and we don't feel bad about shutting down," he said. "Three years is a long time for one congregation to run a shelter, though we had several other churches helping us out."
Woodcock said he expects some of the homeless individuals the shelter has served will find a home in LifeDesigns' 25-room apartment complex, called the Crawford Apartments. When the complex opens by December 2013, it will provide permanent, supportive housing for chronically homeless singles and couples.
"Unlike the Interfaith Shelter, which has four sites, Genesis has run that shelter every night at the same site," Schilling said. "That's a lot to ask of one church. They've done a great job."
Schilling said at this time there are four Interfaith shelter sites — First United Church, Trinity Episcopal Church, First Christian Church and First United Methodist Church.
"But we have no site for Saturday night," he said. "We are looking for other churches or organizations that would be willing to be a host site that night. If not, there's a chance the shelter won't be open that night. I hope that's not the case, but it's possible."