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'Holy Night' warm one for men in homeless shelter

Safe haven provides beds for at least 10 in need

"The Viking" Dave stands proudly next to the Christmas tree he helped set up and decorate at the Walworth County Men's Emergency Shelter this Christmas Eve. The shelter was at the Delavan United Methodist Church over the holidays. (click for larger version)
January 05, 2011 | 08:36 AM
Delavan — It's a holy night, the song says.

It's a good night, said Mike, one of the men staying at the Walworth County Men's Emergency Homeless Shelter this past Christmas Eve.

Without the shelter, Mike probably would have been on his own this holy night. While temperatures were not the coldest of the year, it was snowing and the wind was raw.

Mike, and eight other men, spent it warm and dry in the basement of the United Methodist Church, 213 S. 2nd St., Delavan.

The surroundings are Spartan. The church basement does have a kitchen area with oven, sink and refrigerator. But the beds are U.S. Army cots, the walls are cement basement walls and the floors are plain linoleum. The men keep their personal items around their beds.

The shelter, which rotates among 10 churches around the county, runs on donations.

Everything in the shelter, from the Army cots and the food served for dinner, to the contents of the Christmas stockings, was donated, said The Rev. Bill Myrick, pastor of Christ Episcopal Church, Delavan.

"All of these items are a donation from somewhere," said Myrick. "There are a lot of people who understand the fragility of life,"

Every year around Thanksgiving time, an anonymous donor sends the shelter 10 gift cards of $25 each. Those cards go to the men in the shelter that Christmas Eve.

Myrick became famous five years ago when he posed as a homeless man outside his own church during the Easter season. His own parishioners shunned their own pastor, whom they thought only a bum.

The experience motivated Myrick and others to create the emergency homeless shelter. Still involved in issues involving the homeless, Myrick was sitting with the men in the shelter on Christmas Eve. Dec. 18 marked the fifth year of the shelter.

"About 60 percent of the population is two paychecks away from this room," said Myrick. "You lose your job, and then all you need is a medical bill or other catastrophic expense."

Mike said he didn't expect to get anything for Christmas. But this year, for the first time, the shelter put together stockings for the nine men who were staying at the shelter.

The stockings contained word puzzle books, dice, a chocolate Santa, candy, sausages from Sorg's Quality Meats, Darien; tastefully Christmas wrapped deck of cards, pocket tissues, shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste, mouthwash, a comb, a bar of soap, a razor, shaving cream and a pair of socks.

"They're all basic needs. You don't realize you're without it until you're without it," said Lonnie DeRoos, a former shelter resident and now a member of the shelter's board of directors.

Men staying at the shelter are either silent or they're talkers. The silent ones tend to be younger.

Among the talkers, who are a bit older, the words just tumble out. They tell of bad marriages, bad habits, bad decisions and bad luck.

Mike, 45, said he used to have a negative attitude toward those who needed help from homeless shelters. He said his recent experience has changed his attitude.

The shelter doors open at 7 p.m. The men have to leave the shelter between 8 or 9 a.m.

When not at the shelter, Mike said, his day is taken up with filing job applications. Sometimes he goes to the library to read and look up books on writing resumes and cover letters.

He has nothing but praise for the people who saved him from sleeping in the cold this Christmas Eve.

Originally from McHenry, Ill., he said that during his whole life he's held two jobs. Most recently, during the day he was a bench jeweler, setting stones and cleaning jewelry. At night, he worked as a welder.

Mike needed the income. His two sons, now 19 and 20, have been in and out of trouble, he said. Mike was also supporting an alcohol habit, which he's now battling through the Delavan AA.

His wife, from whom he was recently divorced, has had health problems. A $500,000 medical bill forced him to take out a second mortgage on his house.

And then the economy took a dive. He lost both jobs. Then he lost the house.

Mike, who decided not to give his last name, said he was staying with a friend in Pell Lake when his unemployment ran out on Dec. 4.

Since then, he's been without a place to stay. Fortunately, he found out about the shelter by reading a discarded newspaper.

"I never used to be so well-behaved," said "The Viking" Dave, from Elmhurst, Ill. He's called The Viking because he wore his reddish blond hair and beard long and wild.

He lived wild, too, riding his Harley to bars and getting into fights.

Once a crane operator for the Soo Line in Illinois, Dave, now divorced, has been out of regular work for two years.

On this night, Dave is proud of his handiwork in setting up and decorating the shelter's Christmas tree.

Now the hair and beard are trim. The wildest thing about him is his laugh, which can be contagious.

"I was hesitant about getting involved in the shelter," Dave said in a serous moment. "But I had no other options."

Dave is able to pick up temporary jobs, like packing work gloves, but finding regular work is difficult. He said he's got a job prospect in Darien. The problem, said Dave, is that these jobs don't pay like when he was a crane operator.

A graduate of the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Dave said he's found his skills and education are not in demand.

"I bet I got a hundred applications out there right now," Dave said. "I'm praying to the Lord."

Dave the Electrician had been laid off for four years.

Now his hands are bruised and swollen, covered in bandages. And he's not complaining, because he's back to work.

Originally from the San Francisco area, Dave said he moved to Illinois 20 years ago for the work.

He's finally found work with Commonwealth Edison and is doing underground electrical work, connecting and repairing wiring for street and and traffic lighting in Elmhurst, Ill.

He's in Wisconsin because his estranged girlfriend and two young children, a daughter, 2, and a son, 6, live in Pell Lake. Dave said he's lucky because he has a car and can drive to work. But he still doesn't have enough money for an apartment.

Dave said his goal is to save up enough for a house and to reconnect with his girlfriend and children.

Jerry is the son of a successful musician, who grew up on the Channel Lakes near Antioch, Ill. It was a good life, and Jerry said he misses it.

Trained in carpentry, until recently, Jerry made countertops for a company in Kenosha. Then the company cut back, and Jerry found himself on his own with only his pick up truck for shelter.

Then the weather got colder, gas got more expensive, and sleeping in his truck was no longer an option.

Jerry blames himself for his current situation. Too much partying and drugs soaked up the money he earned making countertops, he said.

Jerry was able to get work with a marina this past summer.

But the pay of $7.25 and $8.25 an hour was about half of what he made in Kenosha.

"I just want to stay sober and go back to school," he said. "I just want to have a job and put bread on the table."

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