It’s winter. You go outside, you get cold, you come inside, you get warm. Simple, right?
Not if you’re homeless. In the winter, many homeless people go out in the cold and stay there for hours, days, even weeks.
Area residents now have an opportunity to commiserate with the plight of the homeless while also making sure the area’s most disadvantaged residents always have a warm, safe place to go during the day or night. On Feb. 25, the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter (WATTS) program is hosting its first Coldest Night of the Year Walk to support its year-round operations.
“It’s an international walk that raises funds for organizations that help the hurt, the hungry and the homeless,” WATTS Executive Director Robyn Miller said on Tuesday. “It also raises awareness that every place has a problem with homelessness. There’s always someone homeless somewhere.”
The Coldest Night of the Year Walk originated in 2011 in Toronto, Canada, and since then has raised more than $57 million to help the homeless populations of 166 Canadian communities. The event expanded into the United States last year, and WATTS will be participating in it for the first time next weekend.
“We’re very excited,” Miller said. “We’re closing in on 200 walkers. We would love to hit 300 because that’s when I need a police escort.”
Anyone who wants to join the walk, scheduled to step off at 5 p.m. Feb. 25, will have the option to choose a 2-kilometer or 5-kilometer route, both of which start at Braddock Street United Methodist Church at 115 Wolfe St. in Winchester. Participants are encouraged to line up financial sponsorships or donate money to help WATTS, but contributions are not required. However, anyone who raises $150 or more will receive a free Coldest Night of the Year beanie (or, as it’s called in Canada, toque).
“It’s open to everybody — children, families, businesses, whoever would like to come,” Miller said.
Children 12 and under must be accompanied on the walk by a parent or guardian, and the only pets that will be allowed are approved and trained service animals.
Along with raising money for WATTS, walk participants will learn what it’s like to be homeless in Winchester. Be prepared, though, because few things in life are more difficult than being displaced, desperate and disregarded.
“They have to walk all the time because they have no place to go,” Miller said, adding that the majority of stores and public buildings in Winchester do not want homeless people in or near their facilities.
In addition to being unwelcome, homeless people are often hungry and have no other option but to seek free meals from local churches or nonprofit agencies like Winchester Rescue Mission or the Salvation Army of Winchester. Coldest Night of the Year walkers will also get a free meal after completing the event, but don’t expect beef Wellington and risotto.
“It will end at Braddock Street United Methodist Church, where New Life Christian Church will be hosting a soup kitchen,” Miller said. “It will be a very simple meal of soup and bread.”
Miller said it’s important to feel compassion for the homeless.
“There are more homeless people out there than people realize,” she said. “You have the chronic homeless — people who have been homeless for a long time or the person holding a sign. You have the transitional — people that come in and out of homelessness. You have people that have had a traumatic event — a fire, a death in the family, a disability, a job loss — and can’t afford rent anymore. And then there are the hidden homeless — people who are living in their cars or a storage unit — who, if they lose their [living] arrangements, have no other place to go.
“You are probably standing next to somebody at [a store] who is homeless, and up to 30% of those people are children,” Miller said.
To register for the Coldest Night of the Year Walk or learn more about the event, visit watts-homelessshelter.org.
WATTS launched in 2009 as a means to convert local churches into temporary shelters that provide overnight accommodations for the homeless during the winter months. Each participating church offers free meals and a place to sleep for one week, then another church picks up the mantle the following week.
In 2020, WATTS added a daytime warming center where people can escape the cold, get snacks and water, use a restroom and have other basic needs met. That was followed in the summer of 2021 with the opening of a daytime cooling center that offered the same amenities during hot weather. Both centers are located at Market Street United Methodist Church at 131 S. Cameron St. in downtown Winchester.
WATTS also has a transition support team that formed in late 2021 and works year-round to help displaced people obtain birth certificates and identification, apply for jobs, submit forms for housing assistance, get information about drug and alcohol rehab programs and seek Medicaid, Medicare and SNAP benefits.
Via Winchester Star