June 19, 2019

Webster alumni volunteer for AmeriCorps St. Louis, provide shelter for the homeless

Kathleen Becherer, program director and co-founder of AmeriCorps St. Louis, stood on a large “A” painted on the concrete floor at AmeriCorps St. Louis’ Urban Adventure Center building on Dec. 1 in Soulard. The Urban Adventure Center will be used as a homeless shelter when temperatures reach 20 degrees or below this winter.

MEGAN FAVIGNANO / THE JOURNAL

Becherer, a Webster University graduate, was one of approximately 75 people who attended AmeriCorps St. Louis’ Chili cook-off fundraiser Dec. 1, which raised $900 to go towards heating the shelter.
On nights when the temperature reaches 20 degrees or below, Winter Outreach, an eight-year-old group through Yahoo, picks up the homeless from around St. Louis. The volunteers take the homeless to one of five small shelters  they have a relationship with—including AmeriCorps St. Louis.
“You could go into AmeriCorps St. Louis last year at anytime and there were card tables and people playing cards,” Mo Costello, Winter Outreach volunteer, said. “You would think ‘Who’s homeless and who’s volunteering here?’ Isn’t that how it should be?”
AmeriCorps St. Louis accepts applications from all over the country. They take approximately one out of every eight applicants. Currently, there are seven Webster graduates involved with AmeriCorps St. Louis.
Two members of the education team and three members of the emergency response team are Webster graduates. AmeriCorps St. Louis’ executive director and program director are also Webster graduates. Becherer received a bachelor’s degree in social service in 1969 and her individualized master’s degree in urban affairs in 1979 from Webster.
“I think people have a crazy notion about who homeless people are,” Becherer said. “We’ve made a lot of friends.”
AmeriCorps St. Louis’ coordinated service team, which works with the mayor’s office, is responsible for organizing the shelter, but all AmeriCorps St. Louis volunteers are required to sign up for shifts.
LaCreshia Griffin-Pope, Webster University 2010 graduate and member of the Americorps St. Louis education team, worked at the shelter last winter. She worked a night shift where she was available if shelter guests needed anything throughout the night. Griffin-Pope played games with guests who didn’t want to sleep.
“They liked coming to the shelter,” Griffin-Pope said. “That was the best part. They felt comfortable around us.”
Griffin-Pope said the shelter was out of her comfort zone, but that she had a good experience. She will also work at the shelter this year.
St. Louis City asked AmeriCorps St. Louis to open the building as a shelter during an especially cold week two years ago. Last winter was the first time AmeriCorps St. Louis offered the use of the building as a temporary shelter in collaboration with Winter Outreach, Quaker house and three local churches.

If the temperature falls below 20 degrees on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night, AmeriCorps St. Louis opens its doors to provide shelter and food.
Costello said when the weather gets cold, the homeless line up for Winter Outreach volunteers to get them into these shelters.
“They (the shelters Winter Outreach has a relationship with) are small, warm, respectful and personable,” Costello said.
The five shelters are small and most can only fit 15 to 30 people. However, Becherer said AmeriCorps St. Louis’ shelter averaged approximately 43 people last winter, except for one night with 71 people. She said 43 guests are ideal, and the shelter would prefer not to go above 50.
“Smaller is better,” Becherer said. “It gives people more of a chance to sit down and have conversations.”

AmeriCorps St. Louis’ shelter receives sheets and blankets from St. Mary’s and Mercy hospital. Local churches, such as Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Bompart Avenue in Webster Groves, helps provide food. Emmanuel Episcopal Church is on call to deliver food to AmeriCorps St. Louis two weekends a month.

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