Beneath the amber glow of panel lighting, sophomore biology and health sciences double major Emily Butters paced the floor of a vacant grocery store.
Through the center of the room, Butters navigated a grid of 45 green mattress pads neatly spaced six feet apart. She heaved stripped bedding into heaps, leaving mini cloth pyramids littered along the scuffed tile flooring.
After the beds were bare, Butters and her fellow volunteers turned their attention to sanitizing the former family food mart — Red Front Supermarket. The old store sits nestled between family homes on Chicago Avenue and overlooks a park and Waterman Elementary School. It now houses over three dozen members of Harrisonburg’s homeless community.
“It was really cool to see something with an old purpose given this new purpose,” Butters said. “They turned what could’ve been just a really sad thing — a local business closing — into something that can really help the community.”
Butters said she committed to the community service as part of a new partnership between JMU’s SGA and Open Doors, the local nonprofit that runs the shelter. Butters — who’s also SGA’s executive assistant — brought two other members of the student organization with her to volunteer.
Open Doors typically rotates the seasonal low-barrier shelter among 14 churches, but Director of Shelter Operations Ashley Robinson said this year the shelter’s location is fixed to protect guests from COVID-19 outbreaks.
Robinson said church congregations used to constitute the bulk of volunteers, but because of the move to Red Front and because many churchgoers are considered high risk, the shelter has seen a decline in volunteers.
Carah Whaley, the associate director of JMU civic engagement and SGA’s faculty advisor, said she thinks the solution to the volunteer deficit lies with JMU students who are statistically less susceptible to the effects of the virus. Last week, Whaley spearheaded an online recruitment drive to encourage students to sign up to volunteer.
“We want to create a sustained relationship to solve homelessness,” Whaley said. “Students can have a direct impact on people’s everyday lives.”
During last year’s shelter season between November and April, Robinson said 56 JMU students volunteered at the shelter — 46 social work majors, five women’s basketball players and five students with Campus Kitchen.
Whaley said she dreams of an even higher turnout this year — something that Robinson said is needed because of the pandemic.
Robinson said she’s already received record numbers of calls from people searching for shelter. She credits this to a hike in evictions when tenants weren’t able to afford their rent because of pandemic-related layoffs and furloughs. While the shelter hasn’t yet struck capacity, Robinson said she anticipates hitting it soon, when the bitter winter weather rolls in.
Additionally, the shelter has introduced new policies and procedures to keep guests and volunteers safe — requiring even more manpower. While Suitcase Clinic volunteers tackle wellness checks and screenings for guests, enhanced cleaning forces must intercept germs on high-touch areas and lug gloves, masks and sanitizers on scene.
Students can register through an online form to wash and fold shelter bedding at the laundromat, clean and sanitize the building, or cook and serve a meal for 50 people.
The meat department window of the former grocery store was remodeled with Plexiglass to create a safer environment to serve dinner to guests. In previous years, shelter meals were provided by the churches that hosted the shelter. Now that the shelter is in a fixed location, Open Doors is scrambling to schedule civic groups, faith communities and other outreach organizations to provide dinner. As of Monday, 12 days of meals in December hadn’t been accounted for according to Open Doors’ Facebook page.
SGA also marshaled a supply drive the week before Thanksgiving Break. Katrina Tilley, senior public policy and School of Media Arts and Design double major and SGA’s chair of community engagement, said the result was a towering box of hats, gloves and scarves.
Tilley said she hopes SGA’s alliance with the homeless shelter will chip away at the issue locally and inspire students to become more involved in the community that encompasses JMU.
“We want to make sure that as much as we are taking from this community, we want to give it back,” Tilley said. “I think that symbol connection is what I’m most excited about.”
Whaley said the recruitment and clothing drives are only the latest displays of the partnership between JMU and Open Doors. Over the summer, JMU transformed Godwin Hall into an emergency shelter location to shield homeless individuals from the effects of the pandemic. Additionally, the Suitcase Clinic is an ongoing collaborative effort between JMU and the Harrisonburg Health Center to provide medical care for people who are homeless.
Whaley said her ultimate goal is to help JMU students see what homelessness looks like from the ground, which may motivate them to demand long-term policy changes.
The moments when a former guest finally signs a lease on a house and whirls to Robinson with “a new light in their eyes” are the moments Robinson said she lives for. She said she hopes JMU students can experience the joy and intelligence that guests at the shelter have to share.
“If you're going to be in this community, it’s important to see and work with the members of our community that are sometimes forgotten about,” Robinson said. “I think it’s important to … try and make a positive impact because they’ll make a positive impact on your life as well.”
Contact Brice Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.