MANSFIELD - The coming of summer is putting the Tioga County Homeless Initiative's shelter program on hold until cold weather returns.
The initiative is a ministry of churches that have reached out to the county's growing homeless population this past winter, but it stopped providing its shelter program as of March 31, according to President John Sylor.
He said the last host church of the winter season was Calvary United Methodist Church in Lawrenceville, which sheltered five people the final night.
"We are winding down to end the season," Sylor said. "(But) homelessness doesn't end with the end of March."
Sylor said the group continues to discuss the homeless problem, and at a meeting last week explored what it can do during the warm-weather months.
The plan is for the shelter program to start up again in the fall, but Sylor stressed that shelter assistance will continue over the summer on a scaled down basis.
"It will be more like providing emergency shelter on an as-needed basis," he said.
Of the eight original that participated as host churches through the winter, Sylor said there are a couple that have volunteered to be on-call through the spring and summer.
"We also are purchasing tents and working with the local campgrounds to get people (sheltered)," he added.
Sylor said the initiative's first winter working with the homeless was a positive experience for the host and support churches.
"We did have a few issues, but by and large it has been a very positive experience," he said.
The original intent of the organization was to provide shelters only during the cold months, but "people in the churches still feel the need to help people."
"People still ask me in church how people (from the shelters) are doing, and if they can help," he said, "(and) they have been building relationships with these people."
Sylor said it's important to continue reaching out.
"If we can just help one person," he said, "it is all worth it."
Though the shelter program was slow to attract people at first, at least 17 individuals and a several single mothers with children used the temporary shelters set up in a different church each week, he said.
The long-term goal of the ministry remains to locate and operate a permanent shelter facility in the county.
"We are looking at different ways of obtaining grant money to help us do that," he said.
In addition, because many of the host churches are on the fringes of the county; and, like Nauvoo, where Sylor's church is, they are far from schools, stores and medical facilities.
"Transportation is an issue," he said.
The ministry tried to find a used 8-to-10 passenger van for transportation, but ended up relying on the private vehicles of church members to transport people to towns during the day to look for work, shop or do errands.
"Looking ahead to this fall, we are looking to get a few more churches involved in hosting, (and) hopefully some (will be) closer in the towns of Mansfield, Wellsboro, Blossburg and Liberty," he said.
Other towns where facilities are located, such as Westfield, Knoxville and Elkland, also could use host churches, he added.
"We had some of our host churches doing it three times," he said. "We ran out of churches but not cold weather."
According to Sylor, the hope is that people and churches who were waiting to see how the shelter program went during its first winter will recognize its benefit and step forward as volunteers and host congregations.
Twenty to 30 churches provided support, food and clothing over the winter.
Sylor said he and other veterans of the program plan to reach out to and visit other congregations over the summer to talk about the program, its needs and successes.
"And not just churches," he added. "We also want to get other organizations involved as well to lighten the load."
Sylor said there are successful programs outside the Northern Tier, such as Family Promise in Williamsport and Carlisle Cares in Cumberland County, that seem to be "very much like what we are doing here in Tioga County."
"We have had folks ask a lot of questions and people are looking to see what is going on," he said.
The ministry will hold a supper for volunteers at 6:30 p.m. next Sunday at the Jemison Valley Brethren in Christ Church, near Little Marsh.
Elected officials such as state Rep. Matthew E. Baker, R-Wellsboro, and the Tioga County commissioners will be invited "to let them know what went on," Sylor said.
Anyone wishing to volunteer, donate or get information about the program 439-9383, or visit the website at tiogahomeless.org.
Support churches include:
First Presbyterian Church of Mansfield, Liberty Valley Lutheran Parish, Mennonite Bible Fellowship, The People's Church of Potter Brook, St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Sullivan State Road Baptist Church, Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church, Coolidge Hollow United Methodist Church and Morris Blackwell United Methodist Church.
Host churches include:
St. Paul's Nauvoo United Methodist Church, Whitneyville United Methodist Church, Westfield United Methodist Church, Westfield United Methodist Church, Jemison Valley Brethren in Christ Church, Calvary United Methodist Church, Independent Bible Church.