The seeds for Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering as it exists today were sown in January of 2009 when the social worker and deacon of Bethlehem’s Trinity Episcopal Soup Kitchen found that many of the people they were serving were forced to sleep outside in sub-freezing weather due to a lack of space in area shelters. Fellow Episcopal churches St. Andrew’s Church and Cathedral Church of the Nativity were contacted and agreed to open their doors to the homeless for overnight shelter during the very harsh weather. They were soon joined by five more churches of various faith traditions as well as the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV), which granted permission to use one of its buildings on nights when no churches were available. Completely staffed by volunteers, these groups housed approximately 75 men, women, and children from January through March and successfully fulfilled their mission—preventing the homeless from freezing to death during the coldest months of the year.

As the program developed, it became clear that the need would be ongoing for the next winter season. Several grants were received and used to buy food, first aid and grooming supplies, sleeping bags, and cover other expenses. During that second season (December 2009-March, 2010), the churches sheltered a total of 102 guests. Some guests were with the sheltering program nearly every night; others were short-term guests. By March 2010 there were 12 churches providing sheltering, and several others that supported the effort in other ways. About 110 volunteers accomplished the many tasks needed to maintain the ministry. Many individuals came to help from non-sheltering site congregations, colleges, schools, and community groups.

During the 2010-2011 season, eleven churches provided shelter covering each night of the week with an average of 11 volunteers per night and over 6,500 total volunteer hours for the season. Separate sites for men and women were also established with 158 guests served.

Even with the mild weather during the 2011-2012 winter, a total of 119 guests were sheltered throughout the season. Steps were taken during the fourth sheltering season to formally organize the ministry. Bylaws were adopted and the first board of directors were elected in February 2012.

The 2012-2013 sheltering season saw a significant increase in the number of guests. In prior years, the number of guests on a typical night was 25-35. This past season, the number of guests on a typical night was 40-50. The winter sheltering season of 2013-2014 will be long remembered for its cold and snowy nights, causing an increase in the number of our guests.

The legacy of what was started by those initial visionaries in 2009 continues to see growth in its development and an increase in numbers of those BES serves. BES, incorporated as a 501C-3 overseen by a board of directors, secured thirteen shelter sites for the 2014-2015 shelter season, where each site offered food and a warm place to sleep for 5,747 men and women seven days a week from December 1 to March 31. This was a 10% increase from the season 2013-2014.

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