Crisis Averted – WATTS ready to shelter the homeless amid pandemic

After being cleared of yard sale items, this room in the basement of the vacant First United Methodist Church building will be the home of the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter (WATTS) program this season. Shown here is Robyn Miller, WATTS executive director, and Sean Devolites, pastor at First United Methodist Church. Photo by JEFF TAYLOR/ THE WINCHESTER STAR
First United Methodist Church on North Braddock Street, which is vacant and for sale, will be the home of the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter ( WATTS) program this season ? as long as the church building isn't sold. This means WATTS clients will not have change locations each week as they have previously done. Photo by JEFF TAYLOR/ THE WINCHESTER STAR

WINCHESTER — When winter rolls into the Northern Shenandoah Valley, the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter ( WATTS) can be the difference between life and death.

Each year, the nonprofit WATTS organization partners with area churches to offer overnight shelter for homeless people who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets in frigid temperatures. COVID-19 nearly shelved the program this year, though, because none of the participating churches could offer a large enough space for up to 35 homeless clients to get a good night’s sleep while remaining socially distanced.

At the last second, serendipity intervened.

The board and clergy of First United Methodist Church in downtown Winchester happened to have an empty building available, and it happened to be big enough to accommodate 35 guests plus an assortment of volunteers. That means WATTS will open on time for its 2020-21 winter season, which begins on Nov. 7.

“If this hadn’t come through, we would have been in trouble,” WATTS Executive Director Robyn Miller said on Monday.

Here’s how it happened.

Last October, First United Methodist Church decided to sell its building at 308 N. Braddock St. and build a new worship facility on 16.2 acres it owns at 362 Apple Pie Ridge Road in Frederick County.

The final church service at the Braddock Street location was held on March 1. Since then, First United Methodist officials have been waiting for someone to buy the building, which is listed for sale for $1,545,595. Proceeds will be used to build a new church on Apple Pie Ridge Road. Until then, the congregation has been holding worship services online and, when the weather cooperates, in an outdoor picnic shelter.

Meanwhile, WATTS was beginning to fear it would not be able to offer a full-size shelter, or perhaps any shelter at all this winter.

Then First United Methodist Church Pastor Sean Devolites called Miller with an offer she couldn’t refuse.

No buyer of the former church building had yet come forward, Devolites said, and the large social hall in its basement was mostly empty, so WATTS was welcome to use the facility until its sheltering season ends on March 27 or the property is sold, whichever comes first.

“Everyone knows where First United Methodist is, so it will be easy for them to find,” Miller said.

She said her top priority is keeping WATTS clients and volunteers healthy, so everyone will have their temperatures checked and be asked a series of wellness questions each time they arrive at the shelter.

“If they have a temperature and answer yes to any of those questions, they’ll be sent to Valley Health,” Miller said. “We also have a sick room we can put them in for the night to make sure everything’s OK.”

The shelter will operate every day from 7 p. m. to 7 a. m. beginning Nov. 7. Clients will be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis.

During the days, Miller said WATTS volunteers and guests will thoroughly clean and sanitize the First United Methodist shelter to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Normally, WATTS rotates shelter locations among its partner churches from week to week. Not only does that require a lot of tear- down, moving and setup, it also means buses must be contracted to drive homeless people to any churches that are not within walking distance of Old Town.

“The churches we would have gone to are still participating. They’ll just be hosting out of this location,” Miller said. “It’s nice to have one spot.”

The First United Methodist social hall is ideal. Not only is it big enough for the full- size WATTS program, it also negates the need for commuter buses and is connected to a commercial-grade kitchen where volunteers can prepare breakfast and dinner for the WATTS clients each day. There are bathrooms throughout the building, and a special trailer will be brought in so guests can shower.

Miller said she is currently working with Winchester Rescue Mission to find a site for a permanent shelter.

“We’re looking for a location that we can hopefully have a day and night shelter together in one spot,” she said. “That would allow us to extend our season.”

Meanwhile, First United Methodist is proceeding with efforts to sell its property. If a buyer steps up and wants WATTS to leave before its season ends on March 27, the nonprofit will have to go, and Miller said she’s not sure where the shelter could end up.

“We’ll help as long as we can,” Devolites said. “We’re really excited to work together.”

To learn more about WATTS or to volunteer to assist at its shelter this season, visit

Contact Brian Brehm at


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