EDITOR’S NOTE: Correspondent Wendy Thomas has been at the Red Cross shelter set up at Nashua High School South since Saturday morning, after having spent Thursday and Friday nights without heat, electricity or water.
This will be my last dispatch regarding the shelter at Nashua High School South, but as the weather does not look good for the next few days, I want to get this information out in case others lose their electricity again.
Who uses an emergency shelter?
People, any of us really, who have the bad luck to lose access to their houses. It can be you, it can be me. It doesn't mean we have hit rock bottom, it simply means that we need a warm and safe place to stay.
One woman I talked to had been staying at a friend's house, but her allergies to cats and her recent illness were taking its toll on her. She knew if she didn't go to the shelter she would get very sick.
Another woman was recovering from a broken ankle and staying in a cold house was not an option.
In our case, we started having some health issues related to the constantly burning wood stoves, but I wasn't keen on splitting my family up (neighbors were volunteering to take some of the kids). I decided that we were all in this together and that we would stay together as a team as long as we could.
Is an emergency shelter safe?
Yes. The thing to remember is that this is not a homeless shelter, an emergency shelter is used in, well just that, emergencies. Fine upstanding members of the community will be there, all looking out for each other.
Safety is huge at an emergency shelter. A policeman is assigned there at all times. Volunteers routinely walk through the living and sleeping areas making sure that all is well. I felt so safe there that I would send my children to bed in the gymnasium while I stayed up to talk with the adults in the outer area. Everyone looks out for everyone else and in the case of children, they become everyone's charge.
There are a few rules at the shelter that are posted for safety reasons, they include no weapons, no alcohol, and no smoking.
How do you use an emergency shelter?
To get into a shelter you have to go to one. Once there, all you do is sign in at the front desk and you are in. No one checks anything, no one questions your need, there are no questions about whether or not you've tried other avenues. The shelter welcomes everyone who shows up.
While there I saw people that only came in for hot meals choosing to brave the rest of the time at home. Some came in only for a warm place to sleep and some like Brian Sabo and his girlfriend came in to use hot showers, get a hot dinner meal and then go home to their cold houses (and four ferrets).
Others like us moved in. You are allowed to leave during the day but they ask you to sign in and out. This is both for security reasons as well as for counts for when it comes time to prepare meals. We would leave to go home, check on the house and dogs and then come back.
How much does it cost?
Not a penny. This is an emergency shelter whose services are provided free by the Salvation Army and the Red Cross. You know those Salvation Army Red Kettles that show up all over town around the Holiday season? That money helps efforts like this as does all those donations to the Red Cross. No one will ever ask you for money while at a shelter.
How can I help?
The shelters do not have the manpower to accept donations like clothing or food from individuals. The best way to help them is to send a monetary donation to the Salvation Army or the Red Cross.
Some people do find ways to contribute their services. Many of the people in the shelter pitched in to help each other. Brian Sabo was so moved by the resiliency of those in the shelter that as a professional masseuse, he provided free back massages on a massage chair that he brought into the shelter.
What should I bring?
A positive attitude. Sure, we were inconvenienced, we were unsure of what was going to happen, but so often we reminded each other that "things could be worse."
We were safe, warm and fed. We were all grateful for what we had.
My son Griffin and I wore shirts that said "Life is Good" and many people at the shelter, unsure of when they could go home, unsure of what they would find when they did go home, came up to us and told us, even under distress, that life was indeed good.
This article appears in the December 5 2008 issue of New Hampshire Business Review