Salvation Army Capt. Joshua Stansbury was 8 years old when he first felt God calling him into the ministry.
Now, just over two decades later, Stansbury along with Pastor Mike Skor of New Hope Wesleyan Church in Williston is spearheading an effort among local churches to create a rotating heating center to keep the city’s homeless safe and warm during the winter months.
On the heels of Concordia Lutheran Church losing its overnight housing program after the city’s Planning and Zoning department deemed it unsuitable, Stansbury and Skor said there is a huge need in the community to provide shelter to those who come to town unprepared for the cold weather.
“What we’re looking at is a rotating heating center among the churches. It would be a winter effort among several churches,” Stansbury said. “[They] would open up their building and let people come in and get warm, sit in the pews — just have a warm place for them to be overnight and not be in their cars or be out on the streets.”
Skor said the “ministerial alliance” is in the very beginning stages and that it has yet to research all the options with the city. Many questions still need answers, according to Skor, however, the need to do something soon is paramount now that fall is officially here.
The hope is to get four to six churches to participate in a weekly rotation, he said, adding that three churches, in addition to New Hope and The Salvation Army, are possibilities, but he had not received confirmation from them as of Friday.
At the Aug. 19 meeting of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, a special permit use application submitted by Concordia was removed from the agenda after an ad hoc meeting Aug. 5, according to the minutes. Chairman Glen Boyeff asked Planning and Zoning Director Kent Jarcik to address this, to which Jarcik responded that the request was “to allow overnight housing of individuals at Concordia.”
He went on to say the R1 residential zoning designation “would not be a permitted use therefore would require a SPU.” A site visit carried out by city staff determined the church would need several upgrades such as a sprinkler system, showers and a designated sleeping room.
The church’s application was found to be incomplete, and city staff said the facility would need to be brought up to code, according to the minutes. Planning staff were unavailable to comment as of Friday.
If the rotating heating center proposal gets off the ground, Stansbury said when it’s The Salvation Army’s turn, individuals would be welcome at the church office at 15 Main St.
He said one of the names the alliance is considering is Project Heat Williston. The thought is that each church in the rotation would allow individuals from 9 p.m. to about 7 or 8 a.m., with Sundays to be determined because of morning worship services.
“We’re hoping [to start] toward the end of October. We’ll have a list of participating churches. We’ll make sure people in the community have a list of what church is going to be doing it that week. It will be just until [the weather] starts warming up,” Stansbury said.
On Sunday, Skor told members of his New Hope congregation that the church planned to explore the possibility of providing an “emergency cold weather kind of place” to those who come to town unprepared for the wintry conditions. It was one of several items he spoke about on Vision Sunday, the church’s call to “Go. Grow. Give.”
“You are here for a mission. I can’t promise you it will be comfortable,” said Skor. “I can promise it will stretch you and change you like never before. … If nobody is going to step up, if we don’t, who will?”
Joan Mainwaring, who attended the 8:30 a.m. worship service, said it makes sense for churches here to help, adding that hundreds of homeless people have arrived on buses and trains who don’t have shelter, a situation she called “life threatening.”
Mainwaring, a transplant, acknowledged that it’s been difficult for longtime residents to have an “invasion of people” and that it’s a “tough situation politically.” But with people still arriving with little money and no shelter, the need is great.
“Everybody deserves a safe place to be. You have to be tenacious in this town. It takes a lot of courage to come here,” she said.
Asked what he would say to those seeking a safe and warm haven when the cold weather arrives, Stansbury said he wants to encourage those in need to be positive.
“As difficult as it is, hopefully it’s in God’s hands and we’re working on something. We’re just hoping the community gets behind us,” he said.