MOUNT KISCO, N.Y. In the winter of 2004-05, Mel Berger noticed a disturbing number of reports coming out about homeless men dying of exposure in the woods in Westchester.
Alcohol was usually involved. Men would pass out and be found frozen to death in the morning.
Berger, the chairman of the Mount Kisco Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention Council, teamed up with the Rev. Paul Alcorn of the Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford Village to address the issue. Together they developed the Emergency Shelter Partnership, a coalition of religious organizations that provide emergency housing for the homeless on a rotating basis during the years coldest months.
Berger, who has volunteered as a drug and alcohol counselor in Bedford and other Westchester courts for nearly 30 years, said that starting around September every year, he would begin to see a lot of Latino immigrants being brought up to court for trespassing. They told him they could not afford their rent in the winter months, when landscaping work was scarce, so they were sleeping in cemeteries and parks and getting arrested.
Luckily this winter, Berger said, the warm November and December, as well as the snowstorm in October, provided a longer period of employment for the workers.
In a more typical year, every night from November to March, from 10 to 30 men, and some women, gather at the Mount Kisco police station to be transported to the church or synagogue that has volunteered to act as a shelter that week.
We do that purposefully so that if there is an issue of somebody intoxicated or high on drugs, the police are there as a resource for us, Alcorn said. We make it very clear you cant use the shelter.
The men and women are served hot dinners by church volunteers and sleep on cots provided by the Red Cross. They are given breakfast bags in the morning and escorted back to town.
Berger said that he feels the group was asking the churches to take a huge leap of faith.
There was no way we could guarantee that these people werent mentally sick or that they wouldnt trash their church, Berger said, noting that in reality, problems with the program have been minimal. What we did know was that they needed a place to stay.
At this point, the partnership has grown to 15 religious organizations that host the shelter one or two weeks at a time every year.
Berger said the group is now its own 501(c)(3) charitable organization and does not take any federal or state money. All donations come from individuals and community groups.
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