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Religious community forms shelter network

PROVIDENCE -- At least 10 churches and synagogues plan to open their doors to the homeless next month, forming a new network of emergency shelters.

Members of the religious community, working with the United Way, Amos House, Travelers Aid, the Coalition for the Homeless, and the governor's office, have developed the emergency shelter network, which would be activated only when all other state and community shelters are full.

The state has already opened two overflow shelters, one in Cranston and another in East Providence. Advocates for the homeless worry, however, that the demand for emergency shelter will once again outstrip the supply, as it did during last winter's deep chill.

Fearing a shortage, the United Way and the Rhode Island Foundation brought together area churches, nonprofit groups, and state agencies to develop a more systematic approach to providing temporary shelter, according to The Providence Journal.

Each church will work with a social-service agency which will screen and refer people and provide follow-up services, such as getting children to school.

Amos House will provide food to the churches. The United Way has established a fund to pay for a roving security guard, and donations will be used to supply the churches with clothing, blankets, and personal items.

Last winter, churches opened their doors, but they were ill-prepared to serve people in extreme need. This year, Travelers Aid, Amos House, and the Red Cross have trained church volunteers on topics ranging from security and shelter safety to food preparation.

Meanwhile, the state fire marshal's office has inspected each church to make sure it meets state safety codes. Churches will soon receive a written report from the fire marshal's office showing what, if any, improvements need to be made.

"Now we can pick up the phone and call one of our faith-based partners, and they can open up almost instantaneously," said Anne Nolan, president of Travelers Aid, the coordinating organization for the homeless.

Nolan said Travelers Aid is already crowded, with 150 men, women, and children sharing a community room during the day. "You can feel the tension in the air," she said. "It's such an awful time of year to be homeless."

All the community shelters are full, except for the overflow shelters in Cranston and East Providence. Twenty people recently spent the night at Travelers Aid, sleeping on tables and chairs.

Not only are more people becoming homeless, Nolan said, but they are also staying in shelters longer as affordable housing becomes increasingly elusive. Meanwhile, more working families find themselves without shelter, and children younger than 13 are the fastest-growing homeless population, Nolan said.

Temple Emanu-El on the East Side of Providence will be the first to open its doors. Eighty volunteers will take turns shopping, serving meals, setting up the gym, and spending the night.

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