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Thursday, May 18, 2006 | Shelter may ultimately be as vital to survival as water and food.

But the need is different. With water and food, there is no choice. Without them, human beings can’t survive very long.

Humans can go indefinitely without shelter, but we don’t want to. Without a pressing need – extreme cold or heat – we still choose to provide ourselves shelter.

That’s why, years ago when kids still played outside, they loved the box more than the gift. Out in the yard, or on the front porch, they turned the box into shelter. In winter, in yards piled with warm brown leaves, kids burrowed in, pulled the leaves around and over them, and peered out at the world.

At my house, we had a covered front porch, as most houses did, in West Texas before central air conditioning. When I heard thunder, and the sky began to darken, I would pull two porch chairs together back-to-back, run back to the bedroom for a quilt, throw the quilt over the chairs, and climb inside as the storm broke. I didn’t need shelter – I already had the porch – but I built one anyway, and in my sanctuary lightning lit the darkness, and thunder roared harmlessly, and the cool, wind-driven mist off the rain was just enough to wet my face, as I leaned near the entrance and watched.

That was the ancient shelter instinct rising. I didn’t need it, but in a raging primeval world of elements and survival demands, I wanted it, because it was something I could do to protect myself. Against all that raw power, it gave me a small corner of control.

That is our real need for shelter. It is evidence that we do in fact have some control.

Then, sometimes, control can get away from people. It slips away, in a million different ways, and always the last thing they want to let go of, until they have no choice, is shelter. And then control is gone.

When that happens, people, all sharing the same ancient instinct, are moved to help each other restore that choice, to have control. Tomorrow night, San Diego’s Interfaith Shelter Network will celebrate its 20th year of bringing people into shelter, step one, they say, “along a path marked ‘self-sufficiency.’”

The Network is a program of the Ecumenical Council of San Diego County and is supported by the city and county of San Diego, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and private donations. It works by obtaining agreements from church congregations, mainly, to use church buildings to provide “rotational shelter,” and it is powered mainly by volunteers. In 2004-2005, 110 countywide congregations participated, organized into seven regions, sheltering 281 people for more than 8,113 people-nights. Volunteers during that year provided 24,000 meals, including a hot supper family-style, breakfast, snacks, drinks and a sack lunch for every person every day.

The largest group served (47 percent) was families, 44 in all, comprising 133 individuals. Others were single men and women, and couples without children. All were referred to the Network by one of 10 local service agencies, whose referral criteria included the individual level of motivation to end their homelessness.

From their base in the Shelter Network, 57 percent of the people found and moved into more permanent housing, 41 percent were working when they departed the Network, and 62 percent of the adults had developed an income stream, either from jobs or other entitlements. The Network also provided career planning workshops and budget workshops. In 19 years, the Network had sheltered more than 6,500 men, women, and children, for 155,000 nights.

Tomorrow night, the 2005-2006 figures will be announced, at the Network’s 20th anniversary celebration at USD’s Joan Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. It always starts with a roof: a small corner of control in which both the sheltered and the sheltering feel warm.

Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at

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