Sacred Spaces

Do Churches Need More Support to Help the Homeless?

Seattle congregations provide sweeping services to those in need, but for some the stress is piling up.

By Stefan Milne September 24, 2019 Published in the October 2019 issue of Seattle Met

A man entered St. James Cathedral on First Hill this July carrying a stone the size of a car battery. He went into a side chapel, bashed a statue of Mary and Jesus, and—when confronted—left. Later that week, he returned: He’d been coming for years to the Cathedral Kitchen, which serves around 40,000 meals annually to people in need.

That Sunday, Father Michael G. Ryan addressed the vandalism in the bulletin, along with two other recent acts: a rock hurled at a statue and a crucifix thrown to the ground (its Christ broke) by another person who’s used the church’s services. The city, he wrote, “has shown itself incapable of dealing with the severe problems brought about by chronic homelessness, mental illness, and drug use.”

Here is what this note was not: A declaration that Seattle is dying. An excuse for closing off St. James’s sanctuary or kitchen or winter shelter. Instead, it stated the conundrum that to be true sanctuaries, churches must keep those seeking refuge safe. It also recognizes that volatile people often have great need. But, because of that, churches, too, need some help.

Patrick Barredo, the church’s director of social outreach and advocacy, says the man who smashed the Mary and Jesus statue was banned from the premises, but kept returning to eat, not comprehending what he’d done. One fix, Barredo thinks, is greater communication with the city and with other nonprofits. “How can we best partner with one another?” he asks.

A new program, launched by mayor Jenny Durkan’s office in July, aims to forge precisely such partnerships by taking a program that’s working and spreading it to other churches. For the Safe Parking Pilot, the city has set aside $250,000 and teamed with Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church in Ballard to support its Road to Housing service and expand it to other congregations. Since 2012, Our Redeemer’s has offered spaces in its lot for people living in their cars. They get a secure spot to park and access to a bathroom and kitchen. Currently the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle works with the church to find candidates (they’ve been filling only two to four of their seven spots), screen them (no violent or sexual offenders), and help them move on to stable housing.

Shannon Beck, Our Redeemer’s social justice coordinator, guesses that maybe 70 people have gone through the program over the years. She knows this is a small solution for a specific part of the homeless population, but she’s seen its power: One man, his PTSD aggravated in shelters, moved in with his wife. “Within 24 hours, his entire demeanor changed.” They proceeded quickly into veterans housing.

After seven years, Beck says Our Redeemer’s has ironed out most problems—nonresidents loitering, neighborhood anxieties—and wants to share that knowledge. She’s met with other churches and expects more to join, but thinks the onus isn’t only on the holy. “Faith communities have always been the place that people go to around these issues. And that’s great,” she says. “But I also think we need to get beyond that.” Walking around at night, she sees all the empty lots at businesses, at people’s houses. Each might provide a measure of peace.

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