7:30 rolls around and the men start funneling in out of the rain, stopping at the staff members desk to sign in and blow a zero on the breathalyzer. Once inside, each man is free to make himself at home. He sets his things on his bed and then beelines for the table by the kitchen. While scoping out the food for the evening, he weighs the options of what to grab and save for later while getting a hot plate of food to satisfy his hunger in the moment. He sits down at the table, cracks a joke, and dives into the food, ready to talk about nearly anything and everything.
Welcome to the Phinney Ridge Emergency Shelter – an old basement-turned-shelter in the bottom of the Emmanuel Church building. Every night from November through April, twenty men fill the space on the other side of the gym wall. Union Gospel Mission has a few shelters like this around the Greater Seattle Area, but the men like to call this one the “Cadillac” of shelters.
Why the “Cadillac” of shelters? One guy explains it this way, “It’s clean, we get spoiled with good food from you guys, the staff actually really cares about us, and it feels like a safe place with not too shady of characters. Everyone’s actually pretty decent believe it or not.” Since the men get their spot held for them each night, it tends to be the same crew of men for the season, which allows consistency and a fairly quirky community to emerge. The men even have their names written on duct tape above their beds to give them ownership over their space.
The overall purpose for UGM’s emergency shelters is to provide a space for the homeless to spend the night during the wet winter months. However, beyond just a dry space, the deeper desire of the staff is to support the men as they figure out the next step. Whether it is getting a bus ticket for the next day, beginning the steps of finding a job, or connecting them with a treatment program, the staff is there to help.
I love that Jesus would be hanging out with these men in the shelter. I imagine Jesus cooking up something delicious, enjoying the food with the guys, joking around about pop culture, and talking about the latest game. Then he would naturally use simple conversations and stories to reveal the heart of the God.
The desperate places we like to hide and cover up in our lives actually allow us to meet with Jesus. In the shelter where facades (good and bad) are stripped away, you can either experience Jesus up close and personal or purposefully ignore him. But when you have no control, you are desperate for something hopeful and real.
The realities of homelessness can be shocking and hard to fully comprehend. It isn’t easy to walk alongside people in addiction or to see friends pass away from heart failure and cancer. It’s not a light matter to celebrate with someone the victory of being clean and sober, only to see him trip up months later and spiral back into addiction. The realities some of the guys are facing can be completely out of our control or experience. In all honesty, we don’t have the solutions or ability to make a measurable change in any of their lives. How do you respond when a man tells you his wife died and he couldn’t handle it so he ran away and ended up homeless on the streets? In each of these uncomfortable places I’ve continued to learn one thing: in every desperate situation there is still hope because Jesus is there. It is in the hard conversations where I am at a loss for words that I have to look to Jesus for how to respond. The guys don’t need our wisdom or solutions, they just need someone to care and walk alongside them.
I love that Jesus would be so proud of these men for fighting hard and he would want to do anything he could to see them succeed. When a guy decides to share his extra blanket, Jesus rejoices in the generosity of such a simple gesture. If a guy opens up about a drug addiction, Jesus is so proud of his vulnerability. Jesus is their biggest fan, rooting and fighting for them even if no one else will. If Jesus is doing that, I want to be as well.
This past year we saw an amazing thing happened in the shelter – the men started referring to the shelter as “home.” At first we overlooked the gravity of what they were saying but then it dawned on us. Home is where you can settle in for the night, have a good meal, enjoy conversation, and fall asleep knowing you are safe and protected. Home is where people are able to fully be themselves. Home is where each person is always accepted, welcomed, cared for, and never overlooked. Home is a safe place to let down one’s guard and begin steps towards healing and restoration. The shelter had become a home for each of these men with varying stories, dreams, and challenges. If we’ve had the smallest impact on helping make the shelter feel like home for these guys, then every meal, conversation, and slightest interaction is totally worth it.
Despite the success of last year, UGM staff says that this year is the best yet! Not because of success rates and measurable changes, but because of the way Mosaic Community Church has partnered with the shelter more than ever before. UGM finds it is these kind of partnerships that are essential to produce lasting change in the men – building friendships that are authentic and go beyond a structured program.
You may have forgotten, but earlier this winter Mosaic Community Church wanted to bless the men of the shelter in a tangible way – by buying new beds and boots for the men! Holy cow, were the guys shocked, overwhelmed, and thankful that Mosaic Community Church cared so much. The night the beds arrived at the shelter the men came in and were speechless. It was funny to see guys try to keep their cool as they tested out the mattress and gave a child-like nod of approval.
Above: The old “beds”
Below: The new beds!
More recently the special-ordered boots arrived, with each man getting his perfect size. A few of the guys passed by at first, stating that they didn’t need new shoes. However, when they realized they were new waterproof boots they stopped in their tracks, turned right around and eagerly accepted them. The men were all smiles as they tried on the boots. One guy, Paul, had just gotten a new job that day and the one thing he was lacking for it was a pair of sturdy boots. He was giddy with excitement when the boots fit, exclaiming how it was perfect timing! The men wanted me to pass on their thanks to each of you who gave this year to help make the new beds and boots possible.
Thumbs up from Scott on the boots!
As the winter months are winding down, the men are starting to search for their next “home.” The shelter closes at the end of April to reopen again in November. It’s always a hard time for the men and staff as they know the clock is ticking before they are out on the streets again. There is no better time to stop by, bring a meal, and change the atmosphere of the shelter for an evening. Literally, every meal and conversation that happens makes an impact because the men know you are taking your personal time to hang out with them. Rally your friends, lifegroup, or coworkers, make a meal together and sit around the table with the men. Hear their stories, laugh a lot, and catch a glimpse of why Jesus thinks these men are awesome.
If you want to learn more or or sign up to serve at the shelter, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Sarah Slegh