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Salt Lake City church shelter in dire need of volunteers with second location opening

Jan 16, 2024, 7:25 AM

SALT LAKE CITY — A group offering an emergency place to stay for unsheltered residents needs more volunteers to stay open during this winter’s lowest temperatures.

They’re also seeing a high enough demand that they’re planning to expand to a second location in Salt Lake City.

Dozens of people lined up outside First United Methodist Church Monday night for Movie Night hosted by the Second and Second Coalition. People arrived more than an hour and a half before the front door officially opened to the public.

Inside, volunteers from different organizations and backgrounds began to gather and turn the church into an overnight shelter.

Wendy Garvin, executive director of Unsheltered Utah, warmly greeted people as they arrived to help during the cold snap. She was also trying to calculate how many people were planning to show up to volunteer.

They were short on their kitchen crew, leaving fewer people to make dinner and get hot drinks ready to serve.

Others quickly laid out pillows and blankets, arranged tables and chairs, set up a receiving and check-in area, and placed sleeping mats on the floor.

“It takes us almost 40 unique volunteers throughout the night to serve dinner, to help our guests while they’re sleeping, to clean up again in the morning,” Garvin explained.

People take on different shifts throughout the night. She explained that they haven’t had enough volunteers for the 80-plus unsheltered residents they serve each day.

“If we don’t have enough volunteers, then we can’t open safely,” she said. “That would mean we’d have to close down, and that would be a dire situation.”

Wendy Garvin talks with volunteers ahead of opening the emergency shelter at First United Methodist Church on Monday. (KSL TV)

Their goal is to stay open every night that temperatures fall below 25 degrees. On Monday, temperatures dipped well into the teens.

“We’ve had to take a break about every third night just so that our core staff can sleep because we also have day jobs,” Garvin explained.

They’ve had no problem filling up the church with unsheltered residents each night, sometimes having to turn people away. That’s why Garvin explained they’re opening a second location at St. Mark’s Episcopalian Church in a week.

It’ll make the need for volunteers even greater.

Garvin has been grateful for volunteers like Candice Simpkins, who show up every night that the church is open.

“You get to meet these people and you hear their stories and you can relate to them,” Simpkins said, of why she helps out. “We’ve all lost somebody. We’ve all struggled with some type of mental illness, depression, whatever it is, addiction.”

Simpkins said being able to help others by giving them love and kindness, can change everything for them.

“You just know that you’re doing the right thing,” she said. “It’s just the most rewarding thing to just get a hug and somebody to tell you, ‘Thank you.’”

Dozens walk into First United Methodist Church for the Second and Second Coalition’s Movie Night (KSL TV)

Joseph Leyba started volunteering recently and has signed up for three shifts in the last week.

“It’s really a way to connect with people that are experiencing some really tough moments in their life right now,” he said.

Leyba expressed that this is the way he wants to contribute to the community — by helping his most marginalized neighbors.

“I think at the end of the day, the people that are showing up here for support or services, medical intervention, or a meal, or maybe a warm place to stay — they’re people just like everybody else,” he said.

Enough volunteers showed up Monday night that Garvin was able to open the doors only a few minutes late after 8 p.m.

“Hey, my friends. How are you doing? You’re ready to come in?” she asked the more than 60 people standing down the entire block.

About two hours later, that number shot up to 75. Garvin expected that about 80 to 85 would seek shelter before the night was over.

“You get to see their faces, and they really start to warm up and they’re so happy to see us. And they tell us that they’ve missed us, and give us big hugs,” Garvin said. “And so it is really, really rewarding to be able to offer this service.”

Click here to learn more and sign up to volunteer.

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Salt Lake City church shelter in dire need of volunteers with second location opening