Top four tips for starting a disaster shelter at your church

The images on television can be compelling: Caramel-colored water flooding homes; people evacuating by boat; elderly victims crying; volunteers handing out blankets.

Floods and other disasters create a host of needs, foremost among them food and shelter. Moved by compassion, congregations may decide to shelter people affected by a crisis, with little forethought or planning. While noble, such relief efforts can backfire and produce problems that organizers never anticipated, from damaged facilities to gun-armed “guests.”

Adequate planning and preparation can minimize many of the risks involved in running a temporary shelter. Before starting an emergency shelter operation, take steps to protect both your ministry and the people you desire to serve.

Tip 1. Partner with an expert: Partnering with an emergency relief agency, such as the American Red Cross or Salvation Army, provides a host of benefits. Not only can the agency provide the necessary cots and blankets, but it can also help train shelter workers, distribute food, provide security, and bring in volunteers from a national network when your local supply runs low. In addition, the agency assumes some of your liabilities for injuries that occur during the sheltering operation and can help pay for any building damage, as well. Contact or for more information.

For the past decade, Henry Simmons has served on the task force of South Carolina Baptist Convention Disaster Relief. The task force is one of the organizations responsible for evacuating the South Carolina coastline in the event of a hurricane.

Simmons, director of missions for the Florence, SC, Baptist Association, teaches Southern Baptist churches across the state how to operate temporary relief shelters. He sees few benefits to churches operating shelters independently, except that they can do everything their way.

“If churches operate a shelter by themselves, they accept all of the liability that goes with it,” Simmons says. “If you work with others, you operate under the other organization’s umbrella. There are lots and lots of churches that decide they’re going to open a shelter without any assistance from anyone. I personally feel that they’re taking some huge risks without adequate planning.”

For example, a church might not be designed to withstand the high winds accompanying a hurricane. Worse yet, emergency relief agencies may not realize that people are there, Simmons says.

“My basic opinion is: If folks intend to operate a shelter, they need to plan to do it ahead of time and plan to do it well,” says Simmons.

Tip 2. Coordinate efforts: If you plan to operate a disaster shelter, communicate regularly with the local American Red Cross chapter and regional emergency officials. This serves two purposes. First, it lets you tap into their experience and resources. Second, it helps them determine if they have enough shelters, volunteers and equipment available to meet the region’s needs in the event of a disaster.

“Part of our preparedness piece is working with churches ahead of time,” says Katherine MacAulay, director of preparedness and response for the American Red Cross in northeast Indiana.

The Red Cross offers to help congregations train their members to operate a shelter. Such volunteers are important, MacAulay says, because “they know where the spoons are. They know the ins and outs of the church.”

It also gives the Red Cross the opportunity to build the volunteer base, she says, so it has more volunteers to draw from in an emergency. Several Christian organizations offer disaster preparedness training, including Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and Nazarene Disaster Relief.

Tip 3. Be as prepared as possible:
Sheltering can be far more complicated than it may appear. Preparation checklist:

  • What services can your church provide?
  • How many people can your building safely house?
  • How many people it will take to staff your shelter?
  • What are your guidelines and operating procedures?
  • What coverage does your insurance company provide?
  • How do you communicate with government and emergency management officials?
  • What demographics will you serve?
  • What type of interpreters you’ll need?
  • How will you buy, prepare, and serve food three times a day?
  • How will you provide enough essential items?
  • How will you pay for food and supplies?
  • How do you work with homeless people who may have problems with addiction     or mental illness?
  • How do you provide security, 24 hours a day?
  • How do you provide childcare?
  • How do you provide first aid and secure medical care for guests?
  • How do you recruit and train volunteers?

In addition, government officials should assess your building’s structural soundness in advance and the county health department may need to inspect your church kitchen before you can prepare food there. “Preparation starts months before a disaster occurs,” Simmons says.

Tip 4. Expect some damage: Operating a shelter will bless many people, but be prepared to experience strain on your church building, which wasn’t designed for residential use.

“Most people are unaware of the damage that occurs in a building that’s used as a disaster relief shelter,” says Steve Hull, senior disaster management consultant of Crisis Management Systems Inc., Charlottesville, VA.

“Let’s say that you open a shelter in your gymnasium for three or four days. When the shelter closes, you find that metal cot legs have scratched the floor and people have spilled soda on it,” says Hull, who has operated disaster relief shelters across the country. “Two toilets are stopped up, a paper towel dispenser has fallen off the wall, and there’s a large stain in the carpet. I’m not saying don’t do it, but some church members may be upset by any resulting damage or clean-up afterward.”

Often, your partner agency will help repair what is broken, says Simmons, of South Carolina Baptist Convention Disaster Relief. It’s important to survey the building with a representative of your partner agency when the shelter opens and just after it closes, he says. During the initial survey, you identify hazards, safety issues and any existing damage. Afterward, you inspect the building to see if any damage occurred while operating the shelter.

Every community experiences disasters, whether they are large-scale crises, such as tornadoes, or small ones, such as residential home fires. Most churches are ideally suited to serve as temporary, short-term shelters for localized, small-scale emergencies, Simmons says. By analyzing the risks in your area and taking care to plan your response to them, you can minimize many of the risks involved in operating a shelter. In return, you will get an opportunity to interact with people who may have lost everything, but still find much to be thankful for.

Laura Brown is communications specialist for Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, Fort Wayne, IN. []

Guidelines for Creating a Temporary Shelter

Here are some suggestions to help safeguard your guests and protect your ministry while operating a temporary shelter for disaster victims.

  • Determine how many people your facility can handle. Fire codes and local ordinances set the number of people that can be in your facility at one time.
  • Decide which parts of your building will be accessible to guests.
  • Enlist capable members of your congregation to supervise guest areas around the clock.
  • Record the name and address of each guest, plus emergency contact information.
  • Create emergency response procedures.
  • Prepare to handle first aid issues.
  • Establish procedures to prevent and respond to unlawful activities. Communicate them to both volunteers and guests.
  • Determine how you will handle weapons and valuables.
  • Secure or monitor entrances at all times.
  • Determine whether food will be prepared on site or brought in from the outside.
  • Establish how you will maintain sanitary conditions.
  • Ensure that the volunteers are trained to identify potential sex offenders. Contact local law enforcement officials immediately if any incident of abuse occurs.

These are just a few of the many factors you will have to consider as you seek to open your church facilities to disaster victims. Prepare a permanent disaster relief plan if you expect to make your church facility available as a temporary shelter as the need arises in the future. As much as possible, plan ahead to ensure a safe and secure place for those you house, as well as those who call your church their spiritual home.


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