Ben Phillips was grateful and took advantage of The Connecting Grounds partnership with Brentwood Christian Church to provide emergency cold weather shelter for homeless residents of Springfield at Brentwood on October 31, 2023. “I feel very fortunate to be here right now in a warm place,” Phillips said. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

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Ben Phillips woke up in a hospital emergency room Monday night with no clue how or why he was there. 

The 59-year-old unsheltered man was told he had hypothermia. He had been sleeping outside in freezing temperatures. 

“My sleeping bag ain’t that great,” Phillips said. “I feel very fortunate to be here right now in a warm place.”

That “here right now in a warm place” was the all-night movie marathon held in the basement of Brentwood Christian Church Oct. 31 — a night when temperatures in Springfield dipped to a record low 19 degrees.

Springfield’s Crisis Cold Weather Shelter program — a network of shelter sites that open on freezing nights and are staffed entirely by volunteers — doesn’t begin operation until Nov. 1. But overnight temperatures had been below 32 degrees since Sunday, Oct. 29.

The solution was not a shelter, but an open building, a series of private movie screenings and a willingness to work outside the lines.

When asked what he’d say to the volunteers and faith leaders who made the movie marathon happen, Phillips smiled.

“Bless them. Bless them,” he said. “I think this is absolutely terrific.”

Some people who took shelter from Tuesday night’s freezing temperatures just wanted a warm place to sleep. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Diana Hopkins, also 59, sat nearby with her 11-year-old dog, Rollie Pollie, on her lap. Hopkins said she was happy to be able to remove Rollie Pollie’s pink sweater and relax in the warm church basement. 

Hopkins explained that she kept Rollie Pollie warm the previous two nights by wrapping the tiny Chihuahua/Miniature Pinscher mix in HotHands and blankets.

“She shivers,” Hopkins said. “I was ready to come to a shelter.” 

Diana Hopkins has her chihuahua/mini-pinscher mix bundled up for the night, Oct. 31, 2023. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Connecting Grounds Pastor Christie Love, who came up with the idea for the all-night event, said multiple people told her about the measures they took to keep warm the previous two nights.

“People were saying, ‘I stayed up all night long just because I was afraid to fall asleep,'” Love said. “Those comments were heartbreaking to hear. There was just an immense amount of gratitude coming in the door, a lot of, ‘thank you so much for doing this.’

Brentwood’s basement was approved for a capacity of 100 people plus volunteers. Pets were welcome, too.

By Wednesday morning, that capacity was stretched just a bit — 101 people sought shelter and warmth at the movie marathon. 

“Fear of freezing is a real thing that people have to live with every day,” Love said. “And when that happens prior to cold weather shelter season, that’s incredibly terrifying.”

No one was turned away, the pastor said.

Pastor: ‘We gotta do something’

Worried about people surviving back-to-back nights in freezing temperatures and knowing Halloween was predicted to be especially cold, Love said she reached out to faith leaders and shelter coordinators with a message:

“We gotta do something.”

“Rev. Phil Schneider (with Brentwood Christian Church) emailed me back and said, ‘Give me a few minutes. Let me check with our board,’” Love said. “And he called me right back and said, ‘We are good to go.’

“So as soon as we got a yes, we checked with the fire department. They were good to go. We called City Utilities to get rides arranged. They were amazing to work with,” Love continued. “We had almost every single person we asked say yes to come help and volunteer. The community stepped up with donations.”

People watch Halloween-themed movies in the community room at Brentwood Christian Church Tuesday night, Oct. 31, 2023. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Two City Utilities buses were used to pick up guests at the Tuesday evening meal site and transport them to Brentwood Christian Church in southeast Springfield. Then on Wednesday morning, buses brought everyone to Veterans’ Coming Home, a daytime drop-in center in downtown Springfield.

To make it a legitimate “movie marathon,” guests were given chairs (not cots) to rest in while Halloween-themed movies played on a big screen. Love picked light-hearted movies like Harry Potter, Beetlejuice and Hocus Pocus. Donated snacks and drinks were provided. 

Jason Thomas watches Halloween-themed movies in the community room at Brentwood Christian Church Tuesday night, Oct. 31, 2023. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Around 9 p.m., lights were dimmed and the volume dropped down a bit.

“If they doze off while watching a movie, so be it,” Love said, watching folks settle in and enjoy a warm space. “It may not be the most comfortable night’s sleep they’ve ever had, but they will be warm and that is what’s important.”

Volunteer: ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of’

About 30 volunteers helped out in shifts to make the movie marathon happen. 

McKenna Mason was among them. A senior at Drury University, 21-year-old Mason said she plans to go on to law school to focus on human rights advocacy. Her honors thesis was on homelessness in Springfield and at a national level.

“I started volunteering with the Connecting Grounds as their intern over the summer,” Mason said. “I did a bunch of street outreach and did the water tanks. I worked at the Outreach Center.

“Christie texted me yesterday and was like, ‘Hey, I have this thing going on. Can you come help?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, from 6 to 9 I can come help,’” Mason said. “It’s been nice to see some familiar faces.”

McKenna Mason, a senior at Drury University, talks with a couple who took shelter from the cold while she volunteered Tuesday night, Oct. 31, 2023. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Mason said she encourages her friends to not be afraid to become acquainted with person’s in the Springfield unsheltered community. 

“These are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my entire life,” she said, motioning to those seeking shelter Tuesday night. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. These people are incredibly kind.”

Through her research, Mason said she’s found that the lack of affordable housing and slumlords are two major problems in Springfield. She’s found most people who are experiencing homelessness have also experienced a great deal of trauma in their lives and do not have family support. 

“If I ran out of money, I can call my mom,” she said. “But these people don’t have that. There’s just no resources for them, no family to help them out.”

Cold weather shelters in dire need of volunteers

Springfield’s Crisis Cold Weather Shelter program is a network of sites that open on nights when the forecast calls for overnight temperatures to drop to 32 degrees or colder. 

The shelters operate Nov. 1 through March 31.

“Angel” brushes “Raven’s” hair in the emergency shelter at Brentwood Christian Church Tuesday night, Oct. 31, 2023. Both said they find they act calming. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

The shelters are primarily housed in places of worship throughout Springfield and are staffed by volunteers who take turns working and sleeping.

As is often the case, the program is in desperate need of volunteers, said Emily Fessler with Community Partnership of the Ozarks.

“Volunteers is our biggest need by far,” Fessler said in an earlier interview.

While there are several volunteer opportunities available ranging from help with meals or laundry, the biggest need is for volunteers who can spend the night. Each site needs two volunteers who can take turns sleeping in four-hour shifts. 

To learn more about volunteering, visit the Crisis Cold Weather Shelters website, or fill out the volunteer interest form

James talks with friends while others watch Halloween-themed movies in the community room at Brentwood Christian Church Tuesday night, Oct. 31, 2023. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers public safety, the courts, homelessness, domestic violence and other social issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald