The white flag was out again last night (Jan. 9). In Evansville, Ind., the white flag flying outside the day shelter at United Caring Services indicates that the shelter will provide respite from the winter weather for the night.
Begun in 2010, United Caring Services’ White Flag program fills a much-needed gap in caring for and providing dignity and respect for the city’s “street homeless.” When the temperatures are going to be below freezing for more than three hours overnight, the CHHSM-member ministry raises the white flag, allowing people to see that they will have a warm place to sleep that night.
A similar Red Flag program exists in the summer. The red flag is hoisted whenever the National Weather Service issues a Heat Advisory or Excessive Heat Warning for Indiana’s Vanderburgh County, and temperatures are going to stay above 80 degrees F for more than three hours overnight. White/Red flag nights are normally announced by 10 a.m. on applicable days.
“The program started because around 80 to 100 people were street homeless in the community at the time, and when temperatures got too cold or too hot, they had no place to go,” says Jason Emmerson, executive director. “It was a major health and dignity concern.”
The issue was not a matter of too few shelter beds, says Emmerson. Rather, many people on the street have underlying behavior-related issues that deny them regular shelter services. Additionally, people whose utilities have been shut off, while not technically homeless, also need a place to escape the weather. After researching and discussing the need, United Caring Services formed a partnership with the local Pigeon Township Trustees Office to run the White/Red Flag program.
Along with one other emergency overnight shelter program — Evansville Rescue Mission — United Caring Services is able to adequately serve the homeless individuals who otherwise might be forced to spend the night in abandoned cars or houses. “Together, we can more than meet the local need at this time,” Emmerson says.
Over the years, the number of individuals participating in white/red flag nights has slowly increased. This past Dec. 10 saw 44 men, women, and children seeking shelter overnight. In 2017 alone, United Caring Services provided more than 1,700 nights of emergency overnight shelter, an average of 27 individuals each white or red flag night.
The number of white flag nights also has increased. For example, November 2018 had more than double the number of white flag nights over the previous year.
In typical UCC style, all are welcome on white/red flag nights. Sobriety is not a requirement, though there are standard night shelter rules for behavior. Even if someone is asked to leave (which is rare), says Emmerson, that person is not barred from other services.
The evening begins around 8 p.m., as soon as the staff can turn the day center into an overnight shelter. As people enter, they receive a mat and two blankets. Participants have access to water and restroom services. Around 7 a.m. the next morning, the staff converts the space back into a day shelter.
In addition to flying the flag outside the building, United Caring Services announces the white/red flag nights on its Facebook page. During the winter months especially, white flag nights operate at capacity.
The program literally saves lives, Emmerson says. “In the deep midwinter, with many nights of cold in a row, we can get 50 additional people sheltering with United Caring Services in white flag.”
Learn more about United Caring Services’ White/Red Flag program.