COLUMBIA, Pa. — Columbia Presbyterian Church, on the 300 block of Locust Street in the borough, is a grand building, with a towering stone exterior, elegant stained glass and sweeping interior wooden rafters. It looks more like a European cathedral than something you would typically find around Lancaster County.
These days, the building not only hosts worship services for its congregation, but is packed with services for Columbia’s homeless population, provided by the church’s homelessness ministry, Hands Across the Street.
Until recently, Hands Across the Street provided its shelter and day program at another building, “Vision Columbia,” at 291 S. Fourth St., which is owned by Columbia Mennonite Mission. But that building is being made available to another congregation, and there’s no longer room there, said the Rev David Powers, Hands Across the Street’s director.
Hands Across the Street’s day program, the Restart Day Center, moved from 291 S. 4th St. into Columbia Presbyterian Church in November. It operates from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday.
As of May 1, the overnight shelter will be squeezed in as well.
The church has two main interior spaces — the main sanctuary and a secondary auditorium-style space. A section of the sanctuary is set up as a meeting area, with chairs as temporary pews. On either side are tables and items for Hands on the Street’s food pantry and its day program, including computers that participants can use.
The side room houses food service. That’s where the shelter will go. It will operate from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily, and has room to provide overnight respite for up to about 20 people. There are shower and laundry facilities available on site.
Right now, tables laden with baked goods and other foodstuffs are right up against a few hundred square feet that presumably will be filled with beds in a couple of weeks. The rest of the food line will snake through the left side of the sanctuary room next door. There’s not a lot of extra room.
Looking for new space
Hands Across the Street is hoping the arrangements will be temporary. However, the organization has been searching for months to find another shelter location, to no avail.
A move to a new building would free up valuable space for everything else that Columbia Presbyterian is doing in Columbia, Powers said Hands Across the Street is willing to work with “any and all partners” on solutions for expansion.
In October, the group reached out to Columbia Borough for help in finding a new shelter space.
“I presented the plight,” Powers said. “We had a good discussion. … We have continued to talk to the borough and keep them apprised,” he said.
Powers said state Rep. Brett Miller toured the 291 S. Fourth St. site, and several Columbia council members have come down to volunteer.
Borough officials did not respond to One United Lancaster’s requests for comment.
The Vision Columbia location had space to accommodate 30 to 35 overnight guests. It has been the only year-round shelter available in Columbia, where 20% of residents live below the poverty line.
The shelter has been averaging 10 to 15 people in the winter and 20 to 25 people in the summer. Powers offered several reasons for the lower winter headcounts: Clients stay in nearby winter-only shelters, or move in with family members, or move out of the area.
Powers came to Columbia in 2004. Hands Across the Street started in 2009. It started small, he said, with a clothing bank, meals and other services.
It began operating the homeless shelter in 2010. It rotated from one church to another in the borough until it secured a permanent location at Vision Columbia in 2016.
Hands Across the Street is part of the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition. The coalition’s office at the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority is assisting with the search for a new location.
The Columbia Shelter is the only year-round congregate shelter outside Lancaster city, and it “meets a community need,” said Deb Jones, the authority’s director of human services, who oversees the coalition office.
“We are delighted for their continued service to the Columbia community and encourage the community to support them in finding a new permanent home,” Jones said.