WILKES-BARRE (BRN) — It was a quick “yes” and a figure out the “how” later for Senior Pastor Tim Walker and the members of Restored Church when they were asked to shelter 43 fire victims.
The Jan. 25 fire struck the heart of downtown Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, when its flames damaged a six-floor apartment complex, taking one life and leaving 123 others displaced and homeless.
County agencies and local organizations immediately jumped into action, securing housing for 80 of the victims. However, this left more than 40 victims still without a home and the agencies in need of further emergency housing.
“There were still 43 adults that were displaced, without any timeline on when they were going to be able to get into permanent housing,” shared Walker.
He continued: “From what I understand, many of those people had kind of just been couch surfing, where they tried to just stay on the couch of friends or family in the area, which obviously is not an ideal setup.”
After being contacted by Keystone Rescue Mission, Restored Church went to work to transform their building into an emergency shelter.
“Our church building was kind of uniquely positioned to be able to provide the housing. We’ve got separate classrooms for men and women to safely sleep, a full industrial kitchen where we could prepare and serve meals and then we also have showers on site in our church building,” said Walker.
In addition to the church’s accommodations, the BRN’s disaster relief team also installed an on site trailer with four shower stalls and a laundry facility. They also provided 50 fully-packed disaster relief backpacks for the fire victims.
The shelter’s doors officially opened on Monday. As of now, victims are coming in increments, with some coming and going at different times.
“We’re prepared, tentatively, to house them for one to four weeks. The goal is that they get in permanent housing as quickly as possible. So, every day people are meeting with caseworkers trying to fill out paperwork [and] secure funding for housing. They’re contacting landlords, they’re going to look at apartments or houses [and] all of that.”
Walker continued: “Most of these people would fall into the category of what I would consider to be the working core. Some of them have jobs, some of them live on fixed incomes, but all of them were one paycheck away from homelessness.”
In order to help the victims get in contact with the proper agencies and resources they need, Restored Church has invited different organizations and agencies to operate out of their upstairs space.
“So, the nice thing is that we’ve been able to operate as a one-stop-shop. Rather than people trying to exhaust themselves – you know, trying to figure out who they need to talk to, where they need to go, what agencies are available and accessible to them – everyone [is] staying downstairs and then upstairs county agencies are rotating throughout the day. So, all of the needs that they have can all be met right on site,” explained Walker.
Keystone Rescue Mission is also present at the shelter, staffing it 24/7 and providing many of the material needs for the guests.
“They’ve been able to secure cots, bedding, basic hygiene needs, [and] all of that kind of work. We’re simply a small part in a much larger picture,” said Walker.
With most of the logistical needs met, Walker and the Restored Church community have shifted their focus to meeting the spiritual needs of the victims.
“We’ve been able to turn our attention to more relational and spiritual details and opportunities to be able to care well for people, not just by providing for their physical needs with shelter, but, ultimately, seeking care for their spiritual needs as well,” shared Walker.
During the day, Restored holds worship services upstairs for those who want to partake as well as daily discovery Bible studies. Then in the evenings, the church hosts special events to engage their guests, such as game nights, movie nights and, come this Sunday, a Super Bowl party.
“We’re going to be throwing a huge Super Bowl party Sunday night – we actually got a BRN Evangelism Grant for that – just to be able to provide some sense of normalcy for these people [and] to remind them that they’re not alone,” said Walker.
During the halftime show of the Super Bowl, a few members of Restored Church will share their testimonies with the shelter guests, with the final person transitioning into the gospel. The guests will then have an opportunity to respond and engage in spiritual conversations.
“They’ve had a hard and heavy couple of weeks, like they’re pretty traumatized and shellshocked. We’re being very sensitive to respect their space and privacy where they can get some of the time and space they need, but we’re also coupling that with opportunities as they’re able and willing to engage,” shared Walker.
Anyone interested in helping Restored Church meet the needs of those staying at the shelter can visit https://restored.churchcenter.com/people/forms/344819.