O Holy Night: Christmas Eve in a Licking County warming shelter

Jack Shuler and Doug Swift visited a warming center on Christmas Eve, joining dozens of their neighbors in a cozy shelter set up in the basement of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Newark, Ohio.
Licking County Warming Center
Licking County Warming CenterJack Shuler

This story initially appeared at The Reporting Project.

Tahnee and her fiancé sat in the parking lot of the Kroger in Pataskala, running the engine for a bit, then turning it off – they only had a quarter tank. They huddled together, calling any shelter in central Ohio to see if they could take them and their cat Little Miss. The wind blew hard against the side of their truck, rocking it in the cold. Their white pick-up in the white parking lot, it’s almost as if they weren’t there.

It was similar for Steve and Tracy, who once had an RV that they parked on private property. They thought they were safe. But then they lost the RV, lost their belongings, and found their way into the woods. They have been living a hard life for several years now.

When it got too cold to stay in the woods by the river, another couple, David and his girlfriend, fled across a field in the bitter, piercing wind. What they wanted was a place that would take not just them, but their dog Thunder as well. Heading into the icy wind, they moved slowly down Main Street. At some point, they got separated. David’s girlfriend got frostbite. 

Click play below and listen to the audio story from Doug Swift.

These people live in your town. The weather was turning, and staying outside was not an option as the winds picked up, as the rain turned to snow, as the temperatures dropped below zero. They set out, looking for a place to stay.

Somehow, though, they all made it to the Licking County Warming Center on Christmas Eve and joined dozens of their neighbors in a cozy shelter set-up in the basement of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on West Main Street in Newark, Ohio. Nancy Welu, from the Licking County Warming Center Taskforce, organized the close to fifty volunteers into action when the forecast called for temperatures below the 15 degree threshold for opening the temporary shelter. 

The space is suited for this — small Sunday school rooms line a wide hallway and in each, four or five cots are set up with blankets and pillows. A few cats and dogs are here, too, and are separated and given roomy cages, loaned out by the Licking County Animal Shelter.

A handful of volunteers greet newcomers and register them in an open space at the end of the hallway. Tables and chairs are set up. Some folks sit around and chat. A few men sit quietly, alone. Christmas music plays softly. Someone thumbs through an old magazine. A man sketches intently. And the coffee is warm.

Holy Trinity’s pastor, Deb Dingus, said that according to the Christian narrative, Mary and Joseph returned to their hometown, and there was no room for them in the inn. She said, “And we’re challenged through that story to ask the question, can we make room in our lives, in our day to day lives? Will we make room in our houses? Do we make room in our churches? Do we make room in our businesses? Do we make room in our communities? Do we make room for what is sacred in our secular world?”

What is sacred, she implies, is everyone, even when they’re struggling, when they’re dirty, when they’ve been living rough in the woods. And everyone is deserving of respect and grace.  

Upstairs, just outside the church kitchen, there are boxes of cookies and sandwiches, bags of apples, boxes of bananas, and a pile of hats and gloves, all donations from kind-hearted people who were thinking about what it must mean to be unhoused, to be out in the cold amidst a blizzard. A volunteer named Roger Stevens said that it’s fitting that we’re thinking about these things, about the unhoused, on this night, but it’s something we need to be thinking about every day.

Come into the warming shelter and meet Pastor Deb Dingus, and several of those taking shelter on Christmas Eve.

What we need to be thinking about is a national housing crisis, one that has reached into every community, even our own. In Licking County, housing stock hasn’t kept pace with our growing population and wages don’t match what’s required to keep a person, let alone a family, housed and fed. MIT’s Living Wage Calculator asserts that for two adults and one child to live comfortably in this county, both adults need to earn at least $17.73 an hour. That might be a stretch for many folks here as the gap between the cost to rent and wages is one of the highest in the state. 

These are things to be thinking about during all 365 days – not just today – as unhoused people rest in our streets, beneath our bridges and overpasses, in our woods, in our backyards, in the parking lots of our big box stores. You’ve seen them. We’ve all seen them.

There’s a woman who works at a local distribution center asleep in the car next to you as you put your bags of groceries into your trunk. There’s a student in your class who slept on the couch of his mom’s best friend last night – got 5 hours of rest if he was lucky. And just now, as you crest that hill above the river and catch sight of the woods below, was that a tent you saw?

Right now, between 500,000-600,000 people are homeless in the United States. Temporary shelters house more than 350,000 people every night, but the rest sleep outside or in cars or in abandoned homes. For a while, there had been a decrease in the number of people who were unsheltered, but between 2015 and 2020 the unsheltered population grew by 30%

There are those who will say that people are coming here because this community offers such great resources to people, but this shelter was the only low barrier shelter in Newark open on Christmas Eve that would take anyone, and all of the people we spoke with were from Licking County, most from Newark. 

In other words, these are our neighbors.

And the people who have worked so hard to prepare this shelter and keep it open for three days straight – serving 36 people, two dogs, and two cats – are also our neighbors. 

Luke tells a story of Jesus Christ’s birth that is about connection and interdependence. It’s also a story about humility, about being humble, about recognizing that we’re not the only ones alive, that even a baby born into a displaced and unhoused family should be given shelter and warmth.

Like Mary, we should look around this shelter on this holy night, and treasure all who are here, and ponder them in our hearts.

The Licking County Warming Center was organized and executed by Nancy Welu, Sean Grady, Linda Mossholder, Deb Dingus, Tim Callahan, Katie Beaver, Amy Dell, Jeff Gill, Trish Perry, and many volunteers. Additional support was provided by Licking Memorial Hospital, Newark Homeless Outreach, and Pathways/211.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Matter News