MT. VERNON — Andrew T. Jacobson looked at a map of the United States and decided to try and find work in Mt. Vernon.
The 31-year-old from Arlington Heights was one of the first to arrive at the Family Life Church on Veterans Memorial Drive when it opened its doors late last week for those needing shelter from the bitter cold that has hung over the region.
Less than a week later, he was able to tell volunteer Luther Torrez and pastor Kent Jackson his good news. On Monday, he starts a new job.
Jacobson explained why he wanted to tell them the good news.
“He’s not only a help, he’s a comfortable help,” Jacobson said. “That’s a lot of what this church has done for me, in a nutshell. Just to have a place to live is what is most helpful to me, personally.”
Jacobson’s is one of more than 20 stories of people who have come in and stayed at the temporary warming center over the last week. While the temperatures continued to drop, several volunteers have worked around the clock to provide resources for those who come in from the cold.
There have been cots set up along the walls of the sanctuary, with a few elderly couples tucked inside a separate room of the church. A family of four was coming later that night; they would be set up in the nursery.
What the temporary warming shelter was going to be and what it has become is nothing short of ‘tremendous,’ Jackson said.
“We had intentions of keeping people overnight and even through the day because we knew that they wouldn’t have anywhere else to go,” Jackson said.
How it was going to work was not immediately clear.
“At its conception, we had no idea how long we were going to be able to do this. It was a huge step of faith,” Jackson said. “We had no idea if we would have anything that could sustain us for more than a day or two. That response that has been from the community has been so tremendous. People have flooded the doors wanting to do something.”
Those donations have come from individuals and businesses alike. Some people have called and offered to volunteer for a couple of hours, or to bring by food. Anything they can do to help.
The volunteers are not the only ones who help out around the church. The visitors also help with chores, often competing with each other on who would tackle the task.
Jackson said the temporary shelter was set up as a way to assist and minister to those homeless people who are either too afraid or cannot be sheltered at other places.
“We’re going to run out of room tonight and we can’t… “ he said. “We can’t let them go out in the cold. You might have come from a house fire from down the street for all we know. We don’t care about the past. The other option is to be out in the freezing cold.
“There is a paradigm shift or perspective shift in our community. Just a few months ago I didn’t even know about this homeless problem,” Jackson said. “I used to be a police officer in this town. I didn’t know that it was as widespread as it was.”
Jackson said the warming center highlights the prevalent issue of homelessness in Mt. Vernon, and there have been discussions on how to create a more permanent solution. Jackson said research is being conducted to develop a center, similar to The Dream Center in Peoria, as a way to help those who may otherwise fall through the cracks.
“The problem is big enough that we can all attack and still have some who need help,” he said “We’ve seen the problem up close and personal, and it’s a problem that needs a more permanent solution,” he said. “You can’t see this and do nothing.”
Lisa Swain arrived at the Family Life Church on Thursday after she was discharged from the hospital and had no place to go. A widow for the last two years, Swain had been incarcerated for the last nine months, and she said she found herself homeless.
On Friday, she was getting help from a volunteer about how to obtain her state identification card. From there, she can reapply to receive her husband’s veterans benefits and railroad pension.
“It’s a God-send,” Swain said. “It’ll be one more step out the door to getting my own place. It’s great having this place in Southern Illinois,” she said. “It’s saving lives is what it’s doing.”
Robin Worrells and her boyfriend Troy had been evicted from a motel they were staying at after falling on hard financial times. They were staying in the woods before a friend of a friend contacted one of her friends and told Worrells about the Family Life Church. Troy had to be sent to a hospital for treatment of frostbite.
“This place has helped me,” Worrells said. “Everyone around here has been so good.”
Starting next week, Worrells will be moving into a new apartment. She said she is happy for the new start, and the chance to be reunited with her cat, Prince.
Hearing the news about Jacobson’s job opportunity and Worrells’ move, Jackson said, is heartwarming.
“This is the result of loving people — no questions asked. When you have people believe in you, it’s powerful,” he said. “They walk differently. They hold and carry themselves differently if we don’t turn our backs on them.”