Volunteer housing scarce

Lack of available housing for volunteers is limiting the number of teams that can help the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | January 20, 2006

"In terms of rebuilding efforts, the long-term recovery committees are coming along much faster on the fringe of the damage."

—Roy Winter

Lack of available housing for volunteers is limiting the number of teams that can help the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast.

Faced with this challenge, faith-based responders are offering creative solutions - and recommending volunteers carefully plan ahead.

When volunteers from Indiana went to coastal Mississippi, the lack of housing cut into the time they could spend helping hurricane survivors, said Dan Gangler, communication coordinator for the Indiana area of The United Methodist Church.

"We noticed with our volunteers going down to Mississippi, they were spending an hour to an hour-and-a-half going from the available hotels to the actual work sites. Others were sleeping on the floors and in the pews of local churches. We knew we needed a better solution."

Partnering with local Mississippi churches, the north and south Indiana conferences of The United Methodist Church are building a volunteer center in D'Iberville, Miss., that will house 40 volunteers. The facility - which will be built on the property of Heritage United Methodist Church - will include six bunk rooms, rest rooms with showers, a kitchen, manager's quarters and a gathering room.

The 50-by-75 foot steel structure will match Heritage's current building. Building the facility with volunteer labor could save 50 percent of the cost, Indiana United Methodist officials estimated.

'Volunteer Villages'

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) has also developed a solution for the volunteer housing shortage - "Volunteer Villages" - or tent camps that house teams coming in from across the country. Villages are either already functioning or planned for Mississippi in Gautier, D'Iberville, Orange Grove, Westminster, Bay St. Louis and Pearlington. In Louisiana, villages will serve Luling and Houma.

PDA leaders said they purposely created the model so it can be reproduced.

"I am proud of our efforts, small though they may be, when compared to the enormity of the recovery task ahead," said Gary Payton, PDA Volunteer Village team chief who helped get the effort off the ground. "The uniting bond we share is the simple desire to serve those so devastated by the wrath of Hurricane Katrina."

When developing the Volunteer Villages, PDA tapped the expertise of the emergency section of Norwegian Church Aid (NCA). Two NCA representatives stayed one week each in Mississippi, helping to design the first village, then standardizing and improving operations.

Similarly, Lutheran Disaster Response coordinators also set up volunteer tent camps to house volunteers assisting with cleanup and debris removal.

Local partners help

Many denominations reported their relationships with local partners - especially those just outside the worst hit areas - have been key in finding housing for volunteer teams.

Week of Compassion, administered by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has worked to create "mission stations" that host volunteers. Week of Compassion is working with the Office of Disciples Volunteering as well as the Great River and Alabama/Northwest Florida regions to partner with local Disciples congregations in Katrina-impacted areas.

The mission stations will provide basic arrangements for lodging, food preparation and showers, as well as helpful and safe work for volunteers.

"As you plan possible volunteer work trips, we strongly encourage you to remember that the greatest need is always for long-term recovery and rehabilitation - those work opportunities six months, a year down the road and beyond - usually when the disaster has left the headlines," recommended Disciples response leaders.

'On the fringe'

Responders urged volunteers not to assume housing is available - because in the most devastated areas, it simply doesn't exist. That's why many faith-based disaster response groups are focusing work in areas that are more ready for volunteer help.

Particularly when it comes to rebuilding homes, some communities simply can't even begin yet. Others - especially those just outside the heavy devastation - seriously need volunteer help.

"In terms of rebuilding efforts, the long-term recovery committees are coming along much faster on the fringe of the damage," explained Roy Winter, executive director of the Brethren Service Center and Emergency Response.

"We see ourselves slowly moving into the most heavily damaged areas."

In the meantime, Winter said, Church of the Brethren volunteer teams are also busy in Ohio and Florida, where people are making a long-term recovery from hurricanes and floods.

Like the Church of the Brethren, the United Church of Christ (UCC) has tried to make clear to volunteers why it's difficult to place them in devastated areas such as New Orleans. The UCC's New Orleans Association, South Central Conference, reported it has limited spaces available for volunteer groups to work in the city.

"The scope and devastation of the disaster delays the ability to begin large scale rebuilding," reported the UCC. "We also are limiting available openings in order to avoid overburdening infrastructure systems not yet fully functional."

In Florida, UCC response leaders are partnering with local churches to establish permanent volunteer hosting facilities. Hundreds of people in that state are still recovering from 2004 hurricanes as well as Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

Volunteers who descend on a damaged community without arranging a place to stay risk burdening local congregations that are coping with the disaster. Fortunately, many volunteer teams seem to be planning ahead, reported Heather Feltman, executive director of Lutheran Disaster Response.

"Many are organizing themselves and their teams so that when they enter into these areas to help with debris removal and cleanup, they will be entirely self-sufficient," she reported.

"It is essential that when our teams arrive on site to volunteer, they have all the resources they need for themselves so that our efforts don't tax local resources. If you want to volunteer, thank you for also taking the extra time to plan and prepare."

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