“It’s just me. I’m just counting…” whispers the familiar voice of Night Shift Coordinator Rhonda Cassity during one of her nightly head counts for the summer COTS program. It can be startling, she knows, for someone who has been used to being on the streets to have someone walk near them when they are sleeping. “We try to create a sense of calm,” she says.

The summer COTS Program has been serving our homeless community since it first launched on April 30 of this year as St. John’s closed for the season. “This is the first year they have had a place to go in the summer, and it has been meaningful on many levels,” Rhonda explained. Between April 30 and Sept. 30, COTS has provided guests with 3,624 nights of safe sleeping.

St. John’s is thankful to the area churches who were so eager to help and be COTS locations when this program first started. COTS began in May of this year as a partnership with local churches who opened their doors to our guests, rotating to a different church every 1-2 weeks. This program helped us respond to a dire need for summer shelter. In July at the request of the Green Bay Fire Department, we were granted permission from the city to move the summer COTS program to St. John’s Shelter. The Fire Department felt that the shelter would be a preferred location since it is already designed for overnight shelter services. As our greatest referral source, the Green Bay Police Department told us how grateful they are for this ministry. They were thankful to have one place to consistently tell patrol officers they can rely on when engaging with someone experiencing homelessness. Because of how our church community stepped-in to help make COTS a reality, we were able to get to the point where we are today, and we are forever thankful for their generosity and support for our homeless brothers and sisters.

Guests have told us how important this is for them. One guest said that because of COTS he’s not on the streets, and it shows that “people care about the homeless.” Another guest said, “I’m glad this is here, and that I can come here.”

This program provides overnight shelter (9 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.) to homeless adults in our community who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets. Homeless guests verify they have no other housing options.

“The generosity of the community is overwhelming,” Rhonda says. She recalled how this summer we put out requests for donations on social media and received amazing responses, from tank tops for the men to sleep in to over 80 cases of bottled water for guests to get through the hot nights.  “It lifts spirits and changes the mood,” Rhonda said of how community support impacts guests.

Guests are giving back, too. “It’s like going home and taking care of the place you lay your head,” Rhonda says, “Everyone does chores just like in any home.” Chores and taking care of St. John’s often reinforces our guests’ desire to eventually have their own place to call home. Guests are good at helping each other. Rhonda often reminds people to “help your neighbor today.”

Staff in the COTS program both hold guests accountable and welcome them as family. For guests who work, staff provide wake up calls, showers and a bagged lunch.

“It’s simple things…we provide a safe place to sleep, but it’s also so much more. If someone’s coughing, we go over and ask if they need a drink of water…it’s what we do,” Rhonda says.

More on COTS: https://www.stjohnhomelessshelter.org/cots.