Trinity Out-Reach Center of Hope

Sheila Michel, Founder of TORCH experiences what it feels like to be without a home.

“Cold Hands, Warm Hearts”

There is something very different about sleeping outside for one night as opposed to knowing every night that is the only option. It’s kind of like saying you know what it is like to backpack because you’ve spent one night in a tent. I cannot imagine the fortitude required to continue to move forward in life without a place to call home. My appreciation for the resilience of those who struggle for a place to sleep, get up in the morning and go to work only to struggle to find a place to sleep the next night grew exponentially in the one meager night I slept on the ground.

January 15, 2015, six of us gathered on the front lawn of First United Methodist Church Oak Ridge in the early evening in an effort to raise awareness of the issue of homelessness in our area. The idea came from the Ministerial Association so three of us were pastors – Brian Scott of Robertsville Baptist, Steve Sherman of First Christian Church and Tandy Scheffler of Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church. Mark Christiansen joined us as the representative for Jake Morrill (Pastor at Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church and visionary for “Cold Hands, Warm Hearts” who was home with the flu). And then Charlotte Bowers, Executive Director of Anderson County Habitat for Humanity, and myself, representing TORCH, rounded out the crew.

Brian showed up on foot and set up a bivouac, a one-sided tent. He placed a sleeping bag on top of a homelessness mat made by a member of his congregation. Steve set up an old tent, no longer waterproof. So the two of them were hoping for little wind and no rain. It was snowing at the time and that seemed manageable. I came with a sleeping bag, a plastic tarp and a box. I placed the tarp down, then a pad, then the sleeping bag and rolled the tarp over the bag. Then I placed a large box over the bedroll. So I also was hoping for the snow to continue and not turn to rain because I had no idea what kind of insulation a drenched cardboard box would provide. Tandy and Charlotte set up to sleep in the Habitat for Humanity truck where collections for the PIT Count warming center where being stored. Mark ended up sleeping in his car. So we had people sleeping in the back of a truck, a car, under a bivouac, a tent and a cardboard box. It seemed a good representation of the types of shelter people are able to manage when there is no home.

TORCH arranged a community soup dinner for us that was served inside FUMC because it was snowing and it didn’t seem fair to ask those who were not spending the night out to eat outside in the snow. People from the community graciously donated soup and came to speak with representatives who work with the homeless in our area, to contribute linens, pillows and blankets for the PIT warming center and to share a meal. The sense of community spirit was overwhelming. I felt so proud to be a part of this town.

Then the night began. At first we gathered in a circle on the lawn around a battery-operated lantern my friend, Jan Ryan, had loaned us. Charlotte brought out cardboard from the truck and placed it on the ground for us to sit on. The lantern gave us light but no heat. But light is the essence of life. Think of all the ways we use the word light to convey good. And the cardboard gave us a surprising amount of insulation from the cold ground. We knew we could use the bathroom in the gas station across the street. The basics were covered. We sat and talked and shared the evening with those who came by to check on us until it got too cold to stay out in the open. Then we all went to our shelters. I was intensely aware of the amount of support the sense of community provides during the time we shared as a group. I was certain this was a shared experience and that others were there for me if I needed help. I was not afraid and I did not feel isolated. As I fell asleep peeking out under the edge of the box onto the blades of ice covered grass I thought of all those sleeping throughout our country on the same night ~ alone, afraid and isolated ~ realizing how very fortunate I am. I also thought if someone had told me in 2011 when the vision of TORCH was first developing that in January of 2015 I would be sleeping under a cardboard box on the front lawn of my church I would have said, “Don’t be ridiculous!” God works in mysterious ways!

Then things changed around 2 am. See, I am a type 1 diabetic, brittle, on an insulin pump. I awoke to the sound of the pump alarming to find out it was no longer dispensing insulin. In the dark I tried to get the pump back in working condition but was not able to. I didn’t want to leave the bedroll and cardboard box so thought I’d just tough it out for the night. But then my reasonable side kicked in with the realization that I could end up in the ER if I didn’t get the pump working again. I don’t make insulin myself and we all need insulin to keep our blood sugar from becoming dangerously high. So I climbed out of the box to my car and headed home to get my medical device back in working order.

As I drove down the Oak Ridge Turnpike toward home I came to a realization. Dr. Roger Nooe, professor emeritus of the UT College of Social Work conducted a study several years ago to determine the cost of homelessness to the community. He followed 25 chronically homeless individuals in Knoxville for one year and came up with $37,000 per homeless individual. I was shocked the first time I heard that number. But as I drove home I realized why that number is so high. If I were homeless, I couldn’t afford insulin, never mind an insulin pump. I would eventually become ketoacidodic without insulin and go to the emergency room. The emergency room would treat me because I would be at risk of death. I would have no way of paying that bill so the hospital would take on the cost of my care. Once ok I would be discharged and again have no access to insulin and eventually end up at the ER again. That would continue to occur until I eventually died. Then the community would take on my burial costs. All of a sudden I felt extremely vulnerable, frightened and isolated. And that $37,000 made sense. God does work in mysterious ways. When an issue becomes personal it becomes so much more real!

Fortunately, because I am not homeless, I was able to drive my warm car into my garage, enter my warm home, get my device in working order again and return back to my cardboard box. I fell asleep overwhelmed by the sense of my own good fortune and the blessings in my life.

I am crying as I write this now. Never have I more strongly believed that we all deserve a place to call home and the ability to receive care for severe medical conditions. I was out from midnight to 3 am doing the PIT Count. My commitment to the work we do is reignited. “Cold Hands, Warm Hearts” was an exercise in humility. Again I will say how impressed I am by the fortitude of those with no place to call home. I don’t think I would make it. I went home in a daze the morning of January 16, grateful for my bed and house, but most importantly for the circumstances into which I was born ~ which I had no control over ~ and my family, friends and life of faith.

Sheila Michel

5 responses to “Sheila Michel, Founder of TORCH experiences what it feels like to be without a home.”

  1. Michel Pelletier says:

    My name is Michel Pelletier and I’m very impressed by your writing. Very touching I might ad. I’m from Canada and I sure know what cold can be all about. What a great thing you are doing for the people around you, you have a great gift and you should be proud of yourself. God bless yourself. Also your website looks great.

  2. Jack says:

    Talk about putting your money where your mouth is, or perhaps, your body where your heart is. I am humbled and awed by the difference you have chosen to make, and the simple logic of your commitment to work toward empathy. God bless and keep you!

  3. Heidi Holm says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience Shiela. I have never been in the position of homelessness and feel quite blessed. I thank God for the compassion He blessed your heart with for this population of people. May you and the program be blessed with everything you need to continue to serve.

  4. Judy DiGregorio says:

    You are a wonderful, caring person. Thank you for forming TORCH.

  5. Zabrina Minor says:

    Sheila, Thank you so much for your heart for the homeless!

    I am blown away by your dedication to these individuals and families!

    Keep up the good work!

    Love, Zabrina

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