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Oh Father, Where Art Thou?

Fellowship Story Showcase

Oh Father, Where Art Thou?

Picture of Peter Korn

An apparently homeless man rests on a South Park Blocks bench, across from a downtown church. City and county officials have asked Portland's religious institutions for help this winter in housing the homeless, especially homeless families. 


Portland Tribune
Friday, December 11, 2009

On the August afternoon her family was evicted from its Gresham apartment, Malinda Word opened a phone book to the church listings and started to call. Word, the subject of an earlier Tribune story, estimates she called 30 churches, explaining to each that she and her husband and their children had no place to sleep that night.

About half the churches said they could not help, Word recalls. The other half said they would only help if the Words were members of their church. Melinda Word, husband Jack, and their three children – ages 3, 7 and 12 – spent the next three months sleeping in their car.

Two weeks ago, as winter began to take hold in the city, Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish, in charge of the city’s housing bureau, and county Commissioner Deborah Kafoury sent an unusual letter to 239 Portland area churches (and one synagogue). Typically, city officials writing to private institutions, even religious ones, are making demands. This letter was more in the form of a plea – to help house homeless families.

As of last week, neither Fish nor Kafoury had heard from any churches willing to answer their plea. If history is any guide, they aren’t likely to.

Fish and Kafoury are asking churches to, at the very least, become part of the Human Solutions Daybreak Shelter program for homeless families. The program, which for years has had nine participating churches, simplifies as much as possible the burden placed on churches. Only families with children are involved, and the adults in those families are screened to keep out guests who could cause problems. The families stay at the church from about 6 p.m. until 7 a.m., when they are driven to a day shelter.

What motivated Fish and Kafoury was what many in the homeless community are calling a one-time disaster. The recession has changed the face of homelessness in Portland this winter, and the most visible change is the families who have lost homes to foreclosure and apartments to eviction.

In addition to an estimated 600 homeless families doubling up with friends and family, there are an estimated 400 Portland families sleeping in their cars or simply outside, or living in what housing officials call dangerous situations. Coincidentally, there are just about that many churches, synagogues and mosques in the Portland area.

But this is not the first time Portland’s churches have been approached. Jean DeMaster, executive director of Human Solutions, which runs the Daybreak program, has been trying to add to her nine participating churches for years.

In fact, DeMaster says, she and her staff have called 200 churches asking them to provide basement or classroom space for the homeless families served by Daybreak. All of those churches, many the same ones written to by Fish and Kafoury, said no.

Faith vs. the real world

Commissioner Kafoury says she hopes to convince the faith community that saying yes need not represent a long-term commitment.

“I understand that a church or a synagogue might not want to become a de facto homeless shelter,” she says. “But we are asking for a short-term commitment, and we are asking in a time of unprecedented need.”

Churches are a “natural ally” of government on homeless issues, in Kafoury’s view.

“They’re all about community and helping others that are in need,” she says. “They have buildings and volunteers, and those buildings are not at full capacity seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”

Eric Canon, chairman of the Washington County Interfaith Committee on Homelessness, thinks too many churches are simply following the attitude of the populace at large, when they should be doing more.

“The bigger question is, ‘What is society’s responsibility?’ ” Canon says. “If you call 30 churches or 240 churches and there is no response, is this the church’s fault, or is this something that’s a little bigger, in terms of society’s response? Right now in our society, it’s just fine to ignore the problem and say, ‘These people are just lazy’ or ‘They’re looking for a handout.’

“Is it appropriate that churches respond in that way? No, it’s not. It’s immoral.”

Maj. James Sloan would like to see more churches open their doors to the homeless this winter, and as Portland metro coordinator for the Salvation Army, he speaks from a moral high ground few in the faith community can lay claim to.

“Christ’s teachings were that we should take in the widows and orphans, and this would certainly qualify in that category,” Sloan says.

The Salvation Army is, in fact, a church. But 70 percent of its energies and revenues are committed to helping the needy, including running homeless shelters, Sloan says. That leaves 30 percent for church work, including Sunday morning services.

But Sloan doesn’t draw a distinction between the money and time spent on church work vs. the resources expended on social action.

“All the social work we do is an expression of our Christian faith,” Sloan says. “We can’t be insulated from the real world. Either our faith stands up to the stresses of the real world, or it’s not a faith.”

But faith or not, opening their doors is not that easy for many churches, says Chuck Currie, a United Church of Christ minister and longtime homeless advocate. Many Portland churches, he points out, have suffered declining membership for years, and almost all do some sort of social outreach work already.

“I think it’s fair for Deb (Kafoury) and Nick (Fish) to ask churches to become involved,” Currie says. “Being involved is central to our missions. It’s absolutely fair. But at the same time, winter is not an emergency. It happens every year at the same time. And their letter, while appropriate, probably should have been sent six months ago.”

Currie says he doesn’t expect churches to respond positively to the letter from Fish and Kafoury because most churches can’t act that quickly.

“I’m not saying churches can’t do more, and there are some communities of faith that aren’t doing enough,” Currie says. “But there are churches that are doing a lot, and they have been doing a lot for a long time.”

There’s an irony in government coming to the churches for help in what is generally recognized as the least-churched state in the country, says Currie. Only about one in four Portland residents are affiliated with any religious organization, he estimates.

And Currie isn’t buying the talk that this recession-marked winter represents a one-time disaster. He sees the rise in homeless families this year as part of a trend long-term.

“Anyone who says this is an emergency situation that’s going to go away in a year is fooling themselves,” Currie says. Given that, he says, church fears that opening their doors this winter will turn into a long-term commitment are justified.


Some work required

Commissioner Fish says he wishes he had approached churches earlier, and he admits that city government historically has done a poor job of building trust with the faith community.

“We’ve been fighting over things, not looking for common ground,” he says. Sheltering families, he adds, could provide some of that common ground.

In the next few weeks, Fish says, he will push an ordinance at City Council that would permit Portland religious institutions to allow homeless people to camp on their property.

At Resurrection Lutheran Church in outer Southeast Portland, Tony Laenen, coordinator of the Daybreak program for the church, says 12 years of sheltering homeless families has only added to the spirit in his congregation. In response to the city’s plea, Laenen says his church might take on even more families this year.

Resurrection Lutheran fits the profile of a lot of Portland area churches – it’s shrinking (350 members), with an aging congregation and not a lot of spare cash on hand. But Resurrection Lutheran has been taking in homeless families for 12 years.

Six church classrooms hold about 15 people one week out of every 10, as the Daybreak program rotates families between churches. There’s work involved, the 70-year-old Laenen says, but not all that much.

Usually at Resurrection Lutheran, one volunteer supplies dinner, another is available to drive homeless families to and from the Human Solutions daytime facility and another volunteer spends the night at the church.

“A few dedicated people are all you need,” he says.

And no, the church hasn’t been vandalized or looted or had to call the police. About the worst incident Resurrection Lutheran has experienced during the years, Laenen says, is arguments between husbands and wives who need to be placed in separate classrooms.

“They’ll yell at one another like crazy sometimes,” he says.

Laenen says he has called pastors at other churches, hoping they would open their doors. But like DeMaster’s and Melinda Word’s, his calls have been met with silence. A few churches have agreed to provide food and volunteers. At that, Laenen says, he can only wonder, especially when he looks to the younger, growing evangelical churches.

“It came easily for this church, but I’ve always thought this church had a big heart,” he says.

Tribune reporter Peter Korn wrote this story while participating in The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism.

Human Solutions program makes it simple to help

City and county officials have asked Portland’s religious institutions for help this winter in housing the homeless, especially homeless families. Jean DeMaster’s job is to make it as easy as possible for churches, synagogues and mosques to cooperate.

The city/county letter to area churches specifically asks them to consider participation in the Human Solutions Daybreak Shelter program for homeless families. The program, partially funded by Multnomah County, is pretty simple. And because nine Portland churches have participated for about a dozen years, Human Solutions, which is run by DeMaster, has a template set up to walk new congregations through the process – from smoke alarm regulations to liability insurance.

Human Solutions runs a day shelter, so it just needs a place where homeless families – usually women and their children – can stay the night, from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. Most participating churches use Sunday school classrooms or meeting spaces. They set up portable partitions to provide some privacy for the four or five families that they house. Human Solutions even provides portable cots for the families.

The Daybreak Shelter model has each church taking in a few families for a week at a time. With nine churches participating, that means each church has eight weeks off before the homeless families return for a weeklong stay. And usually those aren’t the same families – Human Solutions works to move homeless families into rent-supported apartments, so most families stay homeless no longer than a few weeks.

While only nine religious organizations have signed up to host homeless families, 21 others have agreed to provide support. Some prepare meals to bring to the sheltering churches; others send volunteers or prepare dinner.

Interestingly, none of the nine sheltering churches come from the city’s westside, where many of the city’s wealthier congregations reside.

Not that westside churches haven’t been approached. DeMaster, who points out that some of the downtown churches are providing services to homeless single people, says she contacted 200 churches over 15 months, asking them to open their doors. None consented; one agreed to provide support.

DeMaster says she understands that most Portland churches are struggling with declining and aging memberships. Still, when asked how the churches she has called have responded, she says: “What they mostly say is they don’t want the church building used that way.”

Shrinking, aging churches find it hard to reach out

Brian Heron, pastor at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Parkrose, would like to help homeless families.

Two weeks ago, he received the letter sent to churches by city and county commissioners asking for help. His congregants have discussed social action efforts. He can even provide evidence of his church’s good intentions:

Last winter, a homeless man knocked at the door of Eastminster asking for work. The church hired him to paint the inside of the 55-year-old structure, and when snowstorms hit, it invited him to lay his sleeping bag in a Sunday school classroom, where the man stayed for six weeks, trading painting for shelter and pay.

But Eastminster is a dramatic example of the state of many oldline Portland churches. In 1972, it had 450 congregants. Today, it has 50, with an average age of 79. The church has been unable to shift its identity as the neighborhood around it has changed. Money is nearly as low as attendance.

Eastminster has plenty of what is most needed to shelter homeless families – space, in the form of 3 acres of land and a mostly empty building.

And the church is willing to offer that space to any other congregation that has the opposite problem – an abudance of money and volunteers, but an unwillingness to open its doors. But there’s one other obstacle that Heron says would have to be overcome.

In Portland, Heron says, churches and the larger community don’t trust each other. And even in a a time of need, neither wants to feel like they’re just being used.

“We don’t want to be used for our building and resources, and the community doesn’t want to be proselytized to,” Heron says.

Those attitudes, Heron says, have to be addressed just as much as the lack of money or volunteers available at many Portland churches.

“As long as both parties are wary about that, we’re going to have a hard time getting over this hump,” Heron says.


Homeless took precedence over church building plans

What it really takes to persuade a church to welcome the homeless, says Dick Pomeroy, is one congregant passionate enough to push his or her congregation past the fear factor that comes with having strangers living in their building.

Pomeroy should know. He was that congregant at First United Methodist Church in Goose Hollow, which has probably done as much as any religious institution in Portland to help house homeless families.

Pomeroy, 83, says prior to opening the Goose Hollow Family Shelter, First United was like a lot of churches.

“We talked a lot about doing things, but I don’t think we were doing a lot of things,” says Pomeroy.

The shelter opened in First United’s gym in 1993 after considerable congregational debate, much of it led by Pomeroy and his wife, Olive. Pomeroy says the church at that time also was considering a major building project.

“That was part of the decision-making priority,” he says. “Do we build a building or work with the homeless?”

In the end, he says, the new building was delayed by a year or two.

The shelter operates only during the winter months, with four or five families getting dinner and sleeping on mattresses in the gym. From 7 to 9 p.m., volunteers take care of dinner and play with children while homeless parents get a break. Less than a third of the volunteers, however, come from First United. The rest are supplied by other churches in support.

Goose Hollow takes in 40 to 60 families each winter, with the average length of stay about a month. By then, case workers usually have placed homeless families in rent-subsidized apartments.

In 16 years of operation, the most serious problem at the shelters was the night a woman guest woke up ready to deliver a baby on the kitchen couch, assisted by the shelter manager, according to Sonja Conner, chairwoman of the shelter’s board.

First United is different from many Portland churches that suffer from shrinking congregations. It has 950 members, about half younger than 50. Conner sees a connection between the health of the church and its shelter operation.

“People join this church because of our reputation for doing social outreach,” she says.