Guidelines for Making Your Church a Temporary Shelter for Disaster Victims

Disaster relief as biblical mission

Like other organizations, churches want to help their communities with disaster recovery efforts. Some open their doors to serve as a shelter for victims of hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, and more.

Although disaster relief efforts may aptly fit the organization’s Biblical mission, church leaders also should consider a variety of security and safety precautions that will protect their ministry and safeguard the well-being of the people they help:

  • Determine first how many people your facility can handle. Fire codes and local ordinances set the number of people that can be in your facility at one time.

  • Limit the areas of your facility in which refugees will have access. If you permit smoking on church grounds, designate and enforce the use of a specific smoking area, preferably outside your church building.

  • Enlist capable members of your congregation to minister to and monitor the activities of the people you house in your building on a 24/7 basis. Conduct regular patrols in areas accessible to disaster victims.

  • Record the names of everyone you house. Also ask for the names of relatives to contact in the event of an emergency.

  • Establish procedures to address emergencies. Be prepared to handle minor first-aid issues. Ensure that everyone in the shelter is aware of your emergency plan, especially ministry workers from your congregation.

  • Establish procedures to address any unlawful activities that may occur within your church facility. Communicate these procedures to those you house and the members of your congregation who are helping. You also may want to consider hiring specialists to help with security.

  • Determine how you will handle weapons and valuables that disaster victims may have in their possession when they enter your shelter. Those you help should not be allowed to possess weapons of any kind while they are housed at your church. Consider using a safe or tightly secured room to safeguard weapons and valuables. Before doing so, consider your legal responsibilities and the insurance risks you may incur while securing items for disaster victims.

  • Secure and/or monitor entrances at all times. Make sure that interior doors are in good repair and are unlocked in areas where disaster victims have access.

  • Determine if food will be prepared on-site or brought in from the outside. The size of your church kitchen and local health department regulations will drive your ability to serve food in your facility.

  • Establish how you will maintain sanitary conditions. Can you provide shower facilities for both men and women? Consider the accumulation of trash and garbage. Maintain, and perhaps increase, janitorial services.

  • Keep your facility clean. Follow local and/or state guidelines for best cleaning and disinfecting practices to help minimize the spread for infectious diseases (like COVID-19). You can learn more by reading Building Preparation—Deep Clean and Disinfect.

  • Monitor the condition of your building on an ongoing basis. Make repairs promptly when needed, especially those that correct health and safety hazards.

  • Ensure that your facility is properly lighted.

  • Strongly encourage parents to be responsible for the safety of their children.

  • Install safety devices on all electrical outlets in areas where children may be housed.

  • Ensure that age-appropriate toys are provided to children. Be aware of toys that have small parts or work in ways that may cause injury to children.

  • Inspect your playground equipment and repair it if necessary. Ensure that areas are uniformly covered with at least nine inches of shock-absorbing material. Adult supervisors should always be present while children are playing.

  • Keep sidewalks cleared of toys and other obstacles that may cause falls and other injuries.

Special Considerations

  • Ensure that the volunteers from your church, particularly those who are assigned to provide security, are trained to identify potential sex offenders and victims of abuse. Contact local law enforcement officials immediately when any incident of abuse occurs within the church shelter.

  • Use only volunteers from your ministry. These will be people you know and have been screened in advance to work with children. Use vetted members exclusively to oversee all activities in which children are involved, especially when they are isolated from their parents or are involved in group activities.

These are just a few of the many factors you will have to consider as you seek to open your church facilities to disaster victims. Prepare a permanent disaster relief plan if you expect to make your church facility available as a temporary shelter as the need arises in the future.

As much as possible, plan ahead to ensure a safe and secure place for those you house, as well as those who call your church their spiritual home.