Monday, October 20, 2014

Bucks County shelter bus changes lives, one ride at a time

Posted: Friday, October 17, 2014


Delilah has collected a lot of miles in her 12 years on the road.
That’s no surprise, since the old gal shuttles dozens of Lower Bucks people who are homeless and otherwise in need to shared meals most nights. During the winter, the 13-seat passenger van can make two or three trips every night.

And once a month, the vehicle named Delilah by the folks who rely on it, picks up a dozen or more for a shower, haircut and lunch. For people like Jeff — a 56-year-old Bucks native who calls the woods of Bristol Township home — this monthly “rejuvenation station” visit is a chance for a fresh start.
Sandy Mullican, left, of Advocates for the Homeless
Jeff calls the bus and the volunteers lifesavers. Without them, he’d have no way to get to the activities organized by Advocates for Homeless & Those in Need, the all-volunteer nonprofit that owns the bus. The group transports the homeless and needy year-round. During Bucks County’s Code Blue program, Delilah is used to evacuate the homeless to temporary shelters during unusually cold weather.
“True story, so many of us would be lost, we’d be absolutely lost, without these people. We would not survive without these folks,” Jeff said on one recent Wednesday at the monthly rejuvenation station. “We need a bigger bus just to get us to these places where we need to eat.”
Sandy Mullican, executive director of the Advocates group, estimates it serves 50 to 60 people each month in its service area, which is roughly the 20-mile radius around Bristol Township. Most guests, as they’re called, live outside or in cars; others rent rooms without kitchens or have no money for food.
One round trip can add as many as 40 miles to Delilah’s odometer, and she rarely makes only one round trip a day, Mullican said. Even when there is no room, the bus visits each designated stop so people aren’t left waiting and wondering, she said.
When the organization bought Delilah second-hand, using donations, in 2011 — two years after the Code Blue shelter program began — the Advocates estimated putting 4,000 to 5,000 miles a year on her. But when they added the shared meals, which are held up to 26 nights a month, the mileage jumped to 10,000 a year, Mullican said.
Last year, Delilah added 15,000 miles to her odometer, mainly the result of a brutal winter and the growing number of guests every Code Blue night, Mullican said.
Delilah’s age and condition, plus the work she does, is why the Advocates group was chosen as one of two local nonprofits that will benefit from this year’s Bucks up Bucks campaign, which seeks to raise $200,000. The first $60,000 will go for a handicapped-accessible bus. The rest is earmarked to renovate the bathrooms at the Family Service Association’s Bucks County Emergency Homeless Shelter in Bristol Township.
One recent Wednesday afternoon, Delilah needed to make two trips to pick up the 16 people for the rejuvenation station that’s held the second Wednesday of each month in the Fallsington Friends Meeting House.
Many of the faces are new this month, according to volunteers like Barbara Woodward, one of the core five volunteers who organize the monthly personal hygiene events. The volunteers also personally pay for the toiletries, food and towels that guests use and they refuse reimbursement from the Advocates, Mullican said. They even shop thrift stores for season-appropriate clothing items and accessories that guests might need.
The Advocates started the monthly respite stop about two months after the start of the Code Blue shelter program in December 2009, Mullican said. The Fallsington Quaker Meeting House is the only shared meal program site that has showers.
“We would hope, at any point, one of our guests might get a job interview and so, keeping up on hygiene is important on many levels,” Mullican said.
Mullican knows there are homeless living in communities outside Bristol Township — Bensalem and Lower Southampton, among them. But having one bus and time constraints limits the Advocates’ stops. With a second bus, Mullican said, the group could expand the number of people it serves.
Carol Kocher is a volunteer driver. She loves driving Delilah, but the vehicle’s age does give her pause.
“When you have 200,000 miles on you, something’s got to go,” Kocher said.
“You get a little tired,” fellow volunteer Barbara Hallowell added.
When Delilah does break down, volunteers are forced to scramble to find alternative transportation, which usually means borrowing a church van, Mullican said. But there are no guarantees one will be available.
Recently, Delilah was out of commission for 10 days after the engine seized on a return trip from a shared-meal event. That repair bill was $4,500, Mullican said.
Until Delilah was roadworthy again, a local church lent the Advocates a nine-seat van for five days. Another local church lent its bigger bus and a driver with a commercial driver’s license for the other five days, she said.
“We did not miss a meal,” Mullican said.

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