Pastor Bob Norton of the Church of the Resurrection in Flagstaff sat in the large room on the bottom floor of the church.
Eighteen people milled about, chatting, eating pizza, watching a movie on television, or sleeping on sleeping bags on the floor.
“This is a privilege and a joy to host our homeless friends,” he said.
The Church of the Resurrection is one of 11 in Flagstaff that have opened their doors during the cold winter months to operate as “overflow” shelters when all of the beds at Flagstaff Shelter Services fill up. The effort is now in its fourth year.
The overflow program adds about 3,000 bed-nights each winter to the community, estimated Ross Altenbaugh, executive director of FSS, adding that the program has contributed to an 87 percent decrease in exposure deaths in the city.
And, so far this year, no exposure deaths have been reported, she said.
The overflow program began on Nov. 11 and will run for 20 weeks, with each church hosting upwards of 50 people experiencing homelessness for a weeklong period, depending on the temperature. Then, the operation will move to a new church to begin a new week.
The program operates on a $30,000 budget with about $20,000 of funds in the past provided by the city, Altenbaugh said. Buses used to transport people to and from the churches have been donated by the Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Transportation Authority. A staff member from FSS spends the evening with the clients at the church.
The clients are asked to volunteer to spend the evening at a participating church, and most are eager for the relative peace and quiet of the church spaces. Clients approved to volunteer are those who don’t exhibit signs of substance abuse, mental illness or other challenges that require more substantial staffing to handle.
Each night, the clients are bused to the participating church after dinner, and everybody pitches in the next morning to clean up the space to leave it as they found it.
“Sometimes, the churches don’t even know we’ve been there,” Altenbaugh said. In fact, one church leader called concerned that perhaps they weren’t able to get inside, but the clients had spent the night.
FSS has room for about 100 adults each night, Altenbaugh said. Additional mats can be placed on the floor of the shelter after dinner, but even then, the shelter reaches capacity on the cold nights.
She estimates that approximately 25 percent of the county’s population of people experiencing homelessness use FSS for emergency shelter. More than 20 percent of the people experiencing homelessness who use the FSS emergency shelter are veterans. About 40 percent are women, and 27 percent of all clients are 65 years old or older. Each year, FSS shelters more than 1,600 different people and provides 55,000 bed-nights and other services, like showers, meals, and more.
The overflow program began in 2013 when volunteers at a nonprofit called The Refuge dedicated themselves to keep the local shelters from turning people away because they were full. The idea was to approach churches to use their spaces, which are empty during much of a week.
Norton said the volunteers came to his church and pitched the idea.
“And I thought, ‘What a great idea,’” Norton said, adding that he approached the church elders with the pitch. “And, of course, we wanted to do it.”
The Church of the Resurrection has participated every year. The first year, the church was used more frequently because there were fewer participating churches, but this year, the Church of the Resurrection is one of 11 participating.
“That’s a good thing,” he said, smiling.
With hundreds of new homes set to be built on the west side, a swelling university population and year-round tourism, Flagstaff is far from a sleepy mountain town. The trajectory of the city’s population reflects that fact as well. The latest figures show the city’s population has soared from 45,000 in 1990 to more than 71,000 people today.
Considering Flagstaff’s somewhat isolated location and lack of substantial local food production, one might stop and ask, “Where exactly does Flagstaff’s food come from?”
Northern Arizona University’s FEWs project, which stands for Food, Energy, and Water systems, is trying to answer this question.
The idea of the project is to manually map the location of grocery stores, restaurants and power infrastructure throughout the city. That data will be entered into a database and then displayed through an interactive map interface, said Benjamin Ruddell, an associate professor at NAU’s School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems. Ruddell heads the project, which is funded by a $463,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
He won’t be doing the work alone, though.
He and the project’s manager are hoping to recruit volunteers to help with the task of mapping the local food system.
Ruddell has experience with large-scale mapping, having already published a virtual map of how Flagstaff’s water travels on a national scale. But unlike the water supply, which is run by the city, the local food system is privately controlled and composed of many owners and businesses, many of whom might not be aware of each other. Ruddell pointed out that it is important for these different stakeholders to know each other, especially if they need to work together during an emergency.
Beyond simply mapping the sources of food, Ruddell said he and his team are also going to get to know the people behind these businesses and industries.
“We are going to try to have a conversation on how to improve the existing system,” he said. “Hopefully once that conversation gets started and everyone knows each other, something useful can come out of that.”
The focus of the FEWs project is to provide the community with comprehensive and essential information without any agenda for how the data is used.
“We’re public servants. We’re educators, researchers and scientists. We’re simply collecting information…and then starting a conversation,” Ruddell said.
Further discussion could include identifying alternate suppliers and routes of travel during emergencies, which could be used to reconnect food suppliers during the emergency.
This important research can only be achieved through the efforts of volunteers. As of right now, applications are still open at Fewsion.us under the education tab. All applicants must be over 18. Because the project will continue over several months, volunteers on the team will be compensated for their time.
Julia Collier is one active member of the community interested in volunteering for the project.
“I became interested in the FEWs Project because I think it is vital that we map the food, energy, and water systems that the community depends upon,” Collier said.
Project Manager Sean Ryan is responsible for recruiting potential volunteers and educating the public about the project.
“I think this a great opportunity for citizens to connect and contribute to cutting-edge research that can make a difference in local policies and issues related to food, energy, and water,” Ryan said. “In the end, mapping the resources that are involved with food, energy, and water will provide the community with more accurate metrics for understanding costs, vulnerabilities, and resilience, and this will help determine the most beneficial choices for policies and decisions made by stakeholders.”
Editor's note: This version has been edited after the story's publication in print.