A Warm Atmosphere at a Hypothermia Shelter

Hypothermia volunteer photo
Mike Collins checks the bedding at the Church of St. Clement before the guests arrive for the night.


Soft, melodic piano chords fill the sanctuary of the Church of St. Clement in Alexandria, Va., early one morning. I get up from my cot to investigate.

A man is thoughtfully creating music on the church piano. He pauses between chords, listening, thinking.

“That’s beautiful,” I tell him. “You must be a professional.”

Yes, he was, the former hip-hop musician tells me. He continues, speaking softly, gesturing with his hands. “Creating music is like building with Legos. It’s all about building and structure. People let their emotions get in the way.”

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The pianist does not fit my profile of a homeless man. Yet he is, as are the seven other men I meet the evening that my husband, Mike, and I serve as hypothermia prevention volunteers.

It's our third time helping out at the shelter, an opportunity we learned about through our own church. We arrive at St. Clement’s around 7 p.m. to review the checklist and haul mats, blankets, pillows and sheets from the storage room to the reception area. There we wait for the van from nearby Carpenter’s Shelter, one of the largest homeless shelters in Northern Virginia. When it arrives at 8:30 p.m., the men (women stay at the shelter) sign in and take their bedding supplies into the sanctuary to create makeshift beds among the pews.

They crowd around a small television near the church's kitchen to watch NCIS and snack on pretzels, cookies and coffee left for them by church volunteers. Some venture outside for a quick smoke break. At 10:15 p.m. it’s lights out.

I take the 10 p.m.-2 a.m. shift while Mike attempts to sleep. My job is to stay awake and periodically walk through the sanctuary to count heads. We have a number to call in case there is an emergency. There never is. These men just want a warm bed.

Mike wakes us up at 5:30 a.m. The men slowly stretch, put their mats away and stuff bedding into a laundry bag.

The shelter van arrives, and our guests sign out and thank us. An hour from now, after a fast-food breakfast courtesy of the church, they will begin the wait for another night of warmth.


Photo: Jane Hess Collins

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