Updated March 24, 2014: 6:10 p.m. EST
Many more people will be forced to sleep outside in below freezing temperatures now that the city of Rockford has told a church to stop providing shelter for the homeless.
In the freezing temperatures of an Illinois winter, finding shelter could be the difference between life and death for those without homes. That's why the Apostolic Pentecostal Church in Rockford, Ill., served as a refuge and warming center to help the homeless survive the frigid winter nights, but now city officials have shut them down citing zoning violations and fire safety hazards, WIFR reported.
Church leaders were told last week that continuing to act as a shelter would be illegal, and many are disheartened. The small building housed as many as 50 people on the coldest nights, according to WTVO-TV.
"To me, people are first. I do believe there would have been a lot of people that wouldn't have been here today if they had not been here [at the church] for four months, because it was very cold outside and I think we saved lives," Theresa Frederick of Apostolic Pentecostal Church told WIFR.
Although homelessness declined by nearly 4 percent between 2012 and 2013, the number of people without shelter in the United States remains high. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, on any given night in January of last year, 610,042 people were homeless. The majority were housed in shelters and transitional housing, but 35 percent were unsheltered and forced to find refuge on the streets, in cars and abandoned buildings or other public places not intended for human habitation.
Rockford is home to a number of housing and shelter options for the homeless, including the Rockford Rescue Mission, which offers shelter as well as food and medical care. Shelter Care Ministries, another local option, focuses on helping and housing people with chronic mental illness.
"The people that came to the center have feelings just like everyone else, and they need their necessities. Food, water, shelter, and love," Thomas Stirling, an employee at Apostolic Pentecostal Church, told WTVO-TV. "They were able to get it all here, and now they cant."
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that displaced homeless people would not have other options once the refuge center closed.