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A Better City, A Brighter Future

The sun streams into the front windows of the East Shore YMCA on a warm fall day. It’s Thursday, and the lobby is full of people. They chat and visit, sharing a breakfast that is being served by two young volunteers. They welcome the guests, knowing many of their names, and asking them about how they’re doing. The genuine smiles on the faces of the breakfasting group are ones of satisfaction, but also a little relief. This is Sanctuary Harrisburg, a program that welcomes anyone in need to come to the YMCA for food, a shower, a haircut, and a place to rest for the morning free of charge.

The program began when Executive Director Chad Krebs met with the Bridge Church staff to discuss their idea for mission work in Harrisburg. The participants are homeless and transient – many of them sleep outside, under bridges, or at other local shelters. Some are residents at the East Shore YMCA in the 86-room residence hall that occupies a large portion of the building.

“No matter what their situation, they’re welcome to come,” shared Alyson Wert, Pastor for the Midtown Campus of the Bridge Church. “Whether their need is a meal, or just a haircut, or a shower, or if they have questions about employment, or how to connect to other resources, they can find that information here.” The Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness produced a report in 2016 that stated; nationally, homelessness decreased by 2% (11,742) since 2015 and 11% (82,550) since 2007, but Pennsylvania is one of 13 states where the homeless count did increase in recent years. It is estimated that over 500 people in Harrisburg are without permanent housing, and 10% of those are listed as unsheltered.

During the course of the morning, the participants are welcomed to use the showers at the YMCA as well as enjoy a hot breakfast and a free haircut. The services are provided by local partners who share the vision of the program and generously donate time and resources to support the efforts of the staff. One of the most amazing things that the Bridge Church has embraced is proactive outreach to the community that benefits from the program. The lead volunteer Nick travels around the city to shelters, places where the homeless congregate, and walks the paths of those who need it most to pass out the information about the program.

The impact of these efforts is astounding. As participants come and go through the building, they are joined by members and program participants who welcome them, many of them by name. A steady stream of people arrive, eat, and wait for a haircut or a shower. It’s beautifully coordinated and effective to watch. When asked about the impact she sees, Alyson tells a story about a woman who came in for a haircut. “She was in tears, just from the transformation and how much better she felt. She was just so thankful.” Each conversation about the program has generated a similar reaction. The staff talks about the physical needs, but also the social and emotional needs that the program meets with each participant. Restoring humanity through simple acts of kindness are why the program began in the first place.

“The Y is a gym and swim to many people, but programs like this one are what make us so much more than your typical fitness center,” said Chad. “The YMCA in Harrisburg and around the country is so much more than that. When we started, we weren’t sure how this program would continue to grow, and we’ve been so pleased that we’ve been able to help it grow. It’s definitely something that’s appreciated and needed.” While it may seem that the efforts of the Sanctuary Harrisburg volunteers and staff are small, they are reaching more and more of those who need it most each time they provide the services at the Y free of cost. To have a reliable, consistent place to receive a hot meal and a warm shower can make a huge difference to someone who is struggling just to get by.

“This is the Y,” Chad said. “This is what we do in the community, and why we exist beyond a different fitness outfit in our community. There are a lot of other profitable places, but the Y needs your support to make sure programs like this continue in Harrisburg.” Alyson’s take is similar, “I didn’t know all of the work that the Y does in the community until I got involved. Helping people feel that they belong, that they’re valued, that they matter. It’s not just meeting those physical needs, it’s about meeting very real emotional and relational needs as well.”

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