GREENFIELD — Bleary-eyed, Tony Simmermeyer straightens up the bright blue blanket on a long, narrow cot and prepares for a night of deep sleep.
While he has no idea what the next night will bring, at least for tonight the homeless man can rest easy knowing his family is warm and safe inside The Landing Place in downtown Greenfield.
The gathering place for teens and adults serves as a warming center for those in need when temperatures turn frigid. Volunteers from Hancock County COAD — Community Organizations Active in Disaster — take turns spending nights at the center, bringing people in from the cold.
Tony and his family are perfect examples of people who could use the help.
For the past three years, he and his wife Lynn have been homeless, sleeping wherever they can — sometimes in motels when they can afford it, other times wherever they can find a spot on the ground outside.
They’ve been known to camp out inside the arched entryway of a downtown Greenfield church.
For the past several weeks, they’ve been sleeping in their son’s Chevy Cruze along with their sons Jamie, 33, and Cody, 26, in different parking lots around town.
It’s been a rough few years for Tony, 51, who grew up in Batesville, and his wife Lynn, 60, a lifelong Greenfield resident.
“But we’ve been through worse,” Tony said.
Lynn suffered a heart attack and stroke and fell into a coma back in 2013, and has been on disability ever since due to a number of health issues. Shortly after that, Tony fell more than 30 feet to the ground in a work accident and narrowly escaped death, but he’s still the sole breadwinner for the family.
His sons recently lost jobs in the food service industry in Greenfield.
“Now everything falls on me,” said Tony, an arborist for a local tree care company.
Dressed in faded blue jeans, dusty work boots and a bright yellow jacket, he looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Living in a car with three other adults is stressful, to say the least, he said. Not to mention brutally cold in the wintertime.
“We don’t really have blankets, just what we have on,” Tony said.
“We try to keep gas in the car so we can start it up every now and then, but coming up with the money is a challenge,” said his wife, her pale blue eyes glistening.
It’s families like theirs that motivated COAD volunteers to stay overnight to open up the warming center to those in need.
Ray and Patty Bruck, both 69, were there to greet the Simmermeyers when they arrived at the center one night last week.
Once they got settled, Patty passed out Fudgesicles and made small talk with the family.
“It was really eye-opening for me to see a family here, not just individuals,” she said.
While the volunteer shift comes with late hours — the Brucks ended their shift at 2:30 a.m. — both say it was a small sacrifice to help a family in need.
“When you get home, it makes you feel good that you’re able to help these people and bring them in out of the cold,” Ray said.
Their gesture wasn’t lost on Tony, who said he’s not used to people showing him kindness.
He’s also not used to waking up in a warm bed.
“When I woke up that first morning to a stranger’s voice saying, ‘Would you like some coffee?’, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” he said.
His wife and sons also expressed gratitude to the warming center volunteers.
“Everyone’s been so nice. This is a great place to stay,” Jamie said.
His brother, Cody, was happy for the chance to take a shower.
Being homeless makes it hard to stay groomed, Jamie pointed out, which makes it hard to land and maintain a job.
While jobs are available, he said it’s hard to keep one when you can’t shower, shave or put on fresh clothes each day, especially when working in food service.
When Tony is at work during the day, Lynn and Jamie often call around to regional homeless shelters in search of their next place to stay.
“But they’re all filled up,” Jamie said last week, after calling shelters in Indianapolis, Anderson, New Castle and Muncie.
Lynn and her sons often have lunch at the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen in Greenfield, then meet Tony there for dinner after work.
Lynn said she has people tell her she’s too old to be sleeping outside in the cold, but she doesn’t see any alternatives.
“I don’t have a choice. We’ve exhausted all our resources,” she said.
Tony is thankful the family at least has his son’s car to sleep in for now, but he’s spent countless nights outside in the frigid cold.
He said the coldest night they’ve ever spent outside was 26 degrees.
“I’ve had to sleep outside when it was down to 15 degrees or so, but I made sure they had someplace inside to stay,” he said, motioning toward his wife and sons as they gathered at The Landing Place.
How does one sleep in that type of frigid weather?
“I mostly just walked around all night. Sometimes I’ll find a piece of cardboard and pull it around me for warmth,” Tony said. “I’ve woken up with an inch or inch and a half of snow on me. You can’t feel your fingers. You wonder what to do, where to go.”
He said he and his family aren’t looking for sympathy. They’ve just fallen on hard times, and need a “hand up, not a hand out.”
Getting a small house or apartment “is next to impossible” based on his fluctuating paycheck, which is also dependent on the weather.
The stress takes its toll on the family.
“I’m on stress overload, but we try to lift each other up,” Lynn said.
“The boys are at the end of their rope,” Tony added. There’s no degree of privacy or alone time when you’re living as a family of four in a car.
The family was at peace on their night last week at the warming center, however, as they waited for a meeting room to clear out so they could set up their cots around 8:30 p.m.
At least for one night, they would be warm and safe as they slept.
“We just take it one day at a time,” said Tony, as he brewed a cup of coffee before heading to bed. “That’s all you can do.”
About the warming centers
Warming centers will be open in Greenfield on evenings when the temperature is below 30 degrees or the wind chill is below 20, according to Hancock County COAD.
Locations: The Landing Place, 18 West South St. (primary site); Greenfield Christian Church 23 N. East St.; Evangel Church, 1221 E. Main St.
Time: 7 p.m. to 8:00 a.m.
Who can come: The warming center is open to anyone without safe, adequate heat.
Finding a site: To find out which site is open, people may visit the Kenneth Butler Soup Kitchen, 202 E. Main St., for the evening meal or by checking the sign on the door. More information also is available by calling 317-462-9900.
Volunteers also are still being sought to staff the COAD-run warming center. Those who have not undergone training with the Red Cross or Salvation Army will be placed with a trained volunteer. Shifts are 7-9:30 p.m.; 9 p.m.-2:30 a.m.; and 2:30-8:30 a.m.
More information is available by emailing [email protected]
Staying at Hancock Hope House
The Hancock Hope House, at 35 E. Pierson Street in Greenfield, staffs its own warming center which abides by the following rules:
-Winter contingency hours are 7 p.m. to 8 a.m., Monday through Friday. Weekends hours will be determined on a case-by-case basis.
-Those seeking shelter can check in at the Hope House office door to undergo a background check, which take about 30 minutes.
-Those who meet the background requirements, which include having a valid ID, will be allowed to stay.
-Those who are not eligible for shelter within Hope House can get a ride to Wheeler Mission from the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department.
-Guests must be and remain drug and alcohol free.
-Restrooms, showers and food are available.
-Lights out is at 11 p.m.