WESTFIELD – Last fall, the Rev. Virginia Carr walked into the portico at the back entrance to St. Peter’s Church and found a homeless man sleeping inside.
The man had piled up his belongings in the small, unheated breezeway, making himself at home next to a snowblower – and making some church members uncomfortable.
Carr, who is the parish rector, and congregational leaders agreed that they had to tell the man to leave.
But there are no homeless shelters in this idyllic village in western Chautauqua County, not far from Lake Erie. In fact, there aren’t any homeless shelters for miles around.
“We felt badly – where’s this person going to go?” Carr recalled.
The experience prompted the congregation of about 50 people to build a portable minishelter, which now sits in the church parking lot and is available to any homeless person on a first-come, first-served basis.
A handwritten sign on the tiny front door typically reads “vacancy.”
But anyone who crawls into the low-slung structure on a cold winter’s eve can flip the sign over to “occupied” and get a good night’s rest, protected from the elements.
Inside, there’s a sleeping bag, some energy bars and enough heat and insulation to guard against even subzero outdoor temperatures.
“It’s extremely humble, but it’s our first crack at it,” said Dean C. Eggert, who constructed the quirky bungalow-style hut inside the church hall over a few January weekends.
Eggert serves as senior warden at St. Peter’s Church, which is located in the heart of the village.
“We wanted to provide an alternative to our doorway, but we don’t have the resources for a homeless shelter,” Carr said.
The man who had been sleeping in the portico was the first person to use the small hut for sleeping. He has since moved on and found shelter in Fredonia with a friend, Carr said.
At least one other person has spent the night inside the shelter since it was placed in the parking lot earlier this month.
Eggert said he spent about $300 on materials, and he based his design on “microshelters” that have been built in Oregon to house homeless people.
He used two-by-fours for framing, plywood for the floor and sides and flexible poly-corrugated sheeting for the roof.
The hut weighs about 120 pounds, he said.
The door is painted red, just like the front entrance doors to the church.
“We have red doors on our church because they represent sanctuary. It means you can’t spill blood on the other side of that door,” said Carr. “Our little house has a red door, too. It’s a safe place.”
The shelter is so low to the ground it’s barely visible from Elm Street while cars are parked in the church lot.
When cars aren’t around, the hut is much more conspicuous.
So far, the church hasn’t heard any objections about the unusual addition to its property, which is across the street from the village and town offices.
“I know it’s there. I don’t know a whole bunch about it,” said Westfield Mayor Michael VandeVelde. “I know of no complaints.”
The church was hoping to start a community conversation about homelessness by putting the microshelter in its parking lot for everyone to see, said Carr.
Eggert hadn’t thought much about homelessness prior to this recent project.
“I was blissfully unaware, either by sheer ignorance or because I didn’t want to think about it,” he said.
Westfield is “very Norman Rockwellesque,” Carr said. “But even here there are people who are either displaced for a variety of reasons or who are homeless.”
The mayor said he doesn’t think Westfield has a large problem with homelessness, “but I know of a couple guys and I think everybody knows them.”
Still, people in rural communities don’t have ready access to the kinds of services available in larger urban areas, said Carr.
The microshelter could be helpful for someone who missed a bus bound for Dunkirk, Jamestown or Fredonia for a mission or shelter, and with nowhere else to stay late in the day, she said.
Already, a church in Brocton has expressed interest in paying for the construction of a second shelter.
Eggert said he hoped conversation around the microshelters might lead to the creation of a facility or outreach to assist people in need.
The minishelter was “not a permanent solution,” added Carr.
“This is our answer to people sleeping in doorways or camping out in the field,” she said. “It’s better than the doorway.”