The Community Connection


Al’s Heart Warming Center for homeless is full every night

- By Evan Brandt ebrandt@21st-centurymed­ @PottstownN­ews on Twitter

POTTSTOWN » The polar vortex that swept into Texas, cut power, heat and water, and put hundreds of thousands out into the cold has caught the nation’s attention during a cold snap that just won’t quit.

Perhaps less noticeable are those who face those conditions every day in our own backyard.

Luckily for 20 of them, they know Tom Niarhos.

Niarhos is the director of Al’s Heart Warming Center, an overnight shelter for homeless men and women located in the former St. Aloysius Parish School on North Hanover Street.

The center opened on Dec. 17, eight days after borough council granted an emergency permit for the center to operate.

The center became necessary because many borough churches that had served as temporary homeless shelters in previous winters, do not have the capacity to house the homeless safely during the coronaviru­s pandemic.

The warming center has been at capacity almost since it opened, said Niarhos.

It has one room for women and three rooms for men; a washerdrye­r, clean sheets and pillows, food, coffee and a welcoming dispositio­n.

“We love you. See you tomorrow” is how Niarhos and the four paid staff and many volunteers say goodbye to guests, even those who are removed by the police for not following the rules.

But that has only happened four times “and we welcome them back the next night,” he said.

Although Al’s Heart takes great pains to ensure COVID-19 safety protocols are followed — temperatur­e checks, HEPA filters in each room, masks and social distancing required — it is not what Niarhos called a “dry shelter.”

That means there is no blood or urine test for guests when they arrive. No matter their state of intoxicati­on, “if they can follow the rules, they can stay,” he said.

“This is a place of hope, love, grace, kindness and forgivenes­s,” Niarhos explained.

“Leave no neighbor behind,” reads a sign at the front entrance, donated by the Knights of Co

lumbus chapter based at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in North Coventry.

In fact, many churches and other organizati­ons make the shelter work.

The washer-dryer was donated by New Hanover United Methodist Church and the laundry soap by Earth Breeze, a company out in Oregon.

Food, which must come in freezable, microwavab­le containers, is also donated, as were the refrigerat­or and two microwaves, and Genesis Housing donated a laptop computer that guests can use while in the shelter.

The entire project is undertaken by an organizati­on called Pottstown LIFT, which stands for Living In Faith Together and its board is comprised of people of several faiths.

“Al’s Heart Warming Center was named after one of the co-founders of Pottstown LIFT, Allan Altschull,” according to Karla Romberg, who oversees TriCounty Network’s Homeless Services and is a member of the Pottstown LIFT board.

“Allan and George Bell began Pottstown LIFT in order to support small nonprofits to grow and flourish in the Pottstown community. Allan had a huge heart, a beautiful spirit and always looked for ways to help out whenever he could. Allan passed away in March of 2020 and we hope his spirit continues on in the work we do with Pottstown LIFT and Al’s Heart Warming Center,” Romberg wrote Saturday in an email to The Mercury.

“The board felt the name was significan­t to honor Allan and also thank Ann’s Heart Overnight Emergency Warming Center in Phoenixvil­le for giving us the assistance to help us begin our work in Pottstown as well,” Romberg wrote.

You can donate to the warming center at the website — https://www.pottstownl­ — and monetary donations, which can also be mailed to 223 Beech St., Building No. 1, Pottstown, PA 19464, are needed as much as food.

That’s because running a shelter for 20 people in a hundred-year-old building is not cheap.

“It costs between $3,500 and $4,000 a week to run this, and that’s just staff and utilities. We have oil/ steam heat, which is very inefficien­t,” he said. “We’ve already had to fill a thousand-gallon tank three times this winter and you have 20 people flushing the toilet a couple times a night, the water bill was higher than I expected.”

One savings comes from the fact that “the church does not charge us any rent.”

In addition to individual donations — the website also has an Amazon “wish list” to make giving easier and more aligned with the center’s needs — Pottstown LIFT is planning a fundraiser auction for the center at Sunnybrook, currently scheduled for March 27.

Since the center opened, Niarhos said it has sheltered 33 different people, “but about 80 percent of them are the same people,” a fact made more obvious Friday night as he greeted the center’s guests by name as they came in.

Because so many of the guests are repeats, their linens and some personal belongings are kept in bins with their names so they can be put back on the cots each night.

The linens were donated by Tower Health, which also launders them for free once a week.

After the guests leave — the center is only open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. — each of the rooms are profession­ally cleaned and the linens and cots are misted with an anti-bacterial fogger to reduce the risk of COVID-19 contaminat­ion.

If there’s one common attribute Niarhos sees among those who take shelter at Al’s Heart each night, it’s that “they have difficulty asking for help.”

“There are a lot of things that can lead to someone becoming homeless, substance abuse, mental health, misfortune. And there are a lot of feelings that come along with that, depression, shame, guilt,” he said.

He would know. Originally from Royersford, “I had my struggles with addiction” and he was homeless for two years in California, said Niarhos.

His fiancee, Samantha Appleton, who is also in recovery, volunteers at the center with Niahros when she is not working at Lisa’s Ultimate Image salon in Pottstown.

“It’s part of my recovery,” she says simply. “We have to give back.”

The couple has a wedding planned for June.

Those who seek shelter from the cold at Al’s Heart can also find the help they sometimes have difficulty asking for. A resource table at the entrance has informatio­n from various agencies for a variety of social services.

On Tuesdays during the day, an organizati­on called Street Medicine provides basic medical services such as wound care and general health check-ups.

And on Thursdays, another organizati­on called Street Outreach is available for “intakes,” which is a social services phrase for getting people into the safety net, discerning their needs and steering them in the right direction, whether it’s to more permanent housing, mental health services or addiction recovery.

Sometimes, that help takes on a more personal touch from Niarhos himself.

“We had a success story just the other night,” he says, playing a voicemail message from a guest who he referred for a bed in a recovery house.

“He lived in Boyertown and had a job but his rent kept going up so he lost his home and he walked here every night from Boyertown,” Niarhos said. He was also addicted to crack cocaine.

“I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, all the accommodat­ions you’ve given me,” said the former guest’s message. “You’ve been a wonderful help to me and this is one more step up in my recovery.”

“They are great people, wonderful people and they are helping me get back on my feet,” said Matthew Hoch, a guest who arrived Friday with a wheeled suitcase full of his belongings.

“I was a father, married, I had a house and a job and I lost them all to a drug addiction,” said Hoch. For a year, he was “couch surfing” at friends’ homes until the pandemic made that less safe for everyone.

On the blackboard behind Hoch’s cot are messages in chalk, some written by volunteers. Some by the guests themselves.

“Change begins with you,” reads one. “Only you can change your situation,” reads another.

Crystal McCoy, 45, is another regular guest.

She’s homeless, she said, “because my mother’s boyfriend kicked me out of her house. His name isn’t even on the lease.”

Unable to work due to back problems, McCoy said she has been waiting to be approved for disability income for the last five years.

During the day McCoy visits the Mission First center on High Street “or I sit at the mall.” Her nights at Al’s Heart “are quiet. The people are very nice here.”

To date, there have been no complaints from the neighbors. “In fact, I can’t tell you how many of our volunteers have commented about how polite our guests are,” Niarhos said.

The center is permitted to operate until April 30.

 ?? EVAN BRANDT — MEDIANEWS GROUP ?? Tom Niarhos, who was homeless himself for two years, is the director of Al’s Heart Warming Center in the former St. Aloysius School on North Hanover Street in Pottstown.
EVAN BRANDT — MEDIANEWS GROUP Tom Niarhos, who was homeless himself for two years, is the director of Al’s Heart Warming Center in the former St. Aloysius School on North Hanover Street in Pottstown.
 ??  ?? Al’s Heart Warming Center has 20socially-distanced cots for homeless people to stay warm during the winter months.
Al’s Heart Warming Center has 20socially-distanced cots for homeless people to stay warm during the winter months.
 ?? EVAN BRANDT — MEDIANEWS GROUP ?? Crystal McCoy has been waiting for five years to be approved for disability status.
EVAN BRANDT — MEDIANEWS GROUP Crystal McCoy has been waiting for five years to be approved for disability status.

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