Shelter and Support for Frontline Communities During Covid

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Valley UU in Arizona Takes Action in Time of Need

In the wake of COVID-19, Valley Unitarian Universalist in Arizona has donated to frontline communities from its reserve fund and it has opened its sanctuary to people seeking shelter. Sue Ringler, former administrator and social concerns coordinator at Valley Unitarian Universalist, speaks to how the congregation is stepping up and living their values when inequalities are exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic.

On Monday evenings for the last six years, Valley Unitarian Universalist (VUU) congregation in Chandler, Arizona would open its doors to people experiencing homelessness in the Phoenix metro area. Volunteers, usually from a different congregation in Chandler, would bring dinner. Then bedrolls and mats would be unloaded, and people settled into the sanctuary to sleep.

This weekly routine was coordinated by the Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program (I-HELP), an organization that provides a safe space for people seeking shelter every night of the week. I-HELP was founded around 15 years ago in Tempe, Arizona, and has since expanded to Mesa and Chandler. Now each of these cities has a network of congregations from a diverse array of faiths that band together to ensure that there is a place to sleep somewhere in the city. It is an impressive show of interfaith coordination to aid underserved communities in the area.

Then COVID-19 swept across the country, and social services everywhere had to adapt. 

It was a Monday in late March, just after most Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country had decided not to meet in person. People came into the shelter as usual, and settled in for the night. Then the manager of the Chandler shelter approached Ringler. 

“The I-Help manager’s face was totally pale, and he told me that all of the other host sites weren’t going to be open anymore because of congregations closing their buildings from COVID,” Ringler said. “So there was no place for these folks to go. I knew that couldn’t happen.”

I-HELP is an impressive show of interfaith coordination to aid underserved communities in the area. When social services were forced to adapt due to COVID-19, VUU stepped up and took action.

AZCEND, the social service agency that sponsors I-HELP, offered to host the members of the program for the next night. In the meantime, Ringler reached out to VUU’s senior minister Rev. Dr. Andy Burnette. 

Rev. Burnette decided to open the sanctuary to host Chandler’s I-HELP for a two week trial as an emergency measure. For the remainder of March, VUU was the sole location that the organization used while Rev. Burnette got in touch with the congregation’s board and explained the position I-HELP was in. At their meeting at the end of March, the board decided to continue hosting for the month of April.

VUU worked a month at a time, reviewing the situation and ensuring that the partnership was working smoothly. At the end of June, the board decided to commit to hosting I-HELP through July and August. This means that it is now the only location in Chandler for people experiencing homelessness to receive shelter. Barring any major changes the partnership will continue until VUU opens its space back up to worship.

The measures came at a dire time for people experiencing homelessness in Arizona. In the months of June, July, and August, the average high is about 104 degrees Fahrenheit and temperatures can regularly spike into the range of 115 degrees. Having a place to cool down someone’s core body temperature at night can save them from heat stroke or even death. From 2008 to 2015, the average amount of annual heat-associated deaths in Arizona was 145. But in the next three years, that figure increased by a hundred, to 245 — every year.

“This community, they’ve never done anything like this before,” Ringler said. “They are an operating shelter now — not just a once a week position. VUU embraced this challenge and have done a phenomenal job of living their mission at a time when it is so hard to know what the future holds.”

“This community, they’ve never done anything like this before,” Ringler said. “VUU embraced this challenge and have done a phenomenal job of living their mission at a time when it is so hard to know what the future holds.”

But living their mission does not stop with I-HELP. VUU identified communities of people who were hit the hardest by COVID-19, and those who are ignored in government aid programs. The result was that instead of shoring up their money for themselves, despite the uncertainty of congregational giving, VUU dipped into their emergency fund and donated to the Navajo Nation fund and the undocumented workers fund. 

Sue Ringler thought that this should not be a surprise. “Those were two groups that we have worked with in the past as advocates and in solidarity, so the community decided to give donations from their savings account,” she said. “The decision was simple. Absolutely simple. That is the wonderful thing about UU’s — they act upon what they believe.”

Written by Aidan Wertz, UU the Vote blogger. Aidan is a college student in Middlebury, Vermont and a lifelong UU.

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