homeless ministry

Room in the inn? For homeless in California, there are spaces in (some) church parking lots

Room in the inn? For homeless in California, there are spaces in (some) church parking lots

As we enter the Christmas season (my apologies to those who celebrate Advent for skipping ahead), you may recall the biblical story of a baby born in a barn and placed in a manger because there was no room in the inn.

A few years ago, I wrote a Christian Chronicle story on programs such as Room In The Inn and Family Promise that — on colder nights — transform church buildings into temporary shelters for the homeless:

“Sheltering people in congregations is not as difficult as many people assume,” said Jeff Moles, Room In The Inn’s community development coordinator for congregational support. “People often think about their insurance needs, but Room In The Inn guests are covered just like any other visitors to the building.”

Most concerns about safety, security and liability disappear after a church hosts the program a few times, Moles said.

“Stereotypes are broken down,” he said, “and there is a ‘holy ground’ experience of people coming together in new ways.”

This week, I enjoyed a compelling Washington Post feature by freelancer Kimberly Winston on houses of worship in California opening their parking lots to the homeless. Yes, some people who have part- or full-time jobs and vehicles can’t afford a place to live.

That’s where people of faith come in:

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Homeless ministry on wheels: a compelling take on 'least of these' in wealthy Silicon Valley

Homeless ministry on wheels: a compelling take on 'least of these' in wealthy Silicon Valley

Back in 2004, my Associated Press colleague Matt Curry — now a Presbyterian pastor — tipped me to the story of "SoupMan."

If I recall correctly, Curry served as a volunteer for David Timothy's mobile soup kitchen in Dallas and didn't feel he could write the profile himself (for obvious conflict-of-interest reasons).

Thus, I ended up with a nice feature that ran on the AP national wire:

DALLAS — The theme from “Rocky” blares from a rickety white van that David Timothy calls his “SoupMobile.”
The music alerts hundreds of the homeless that it’s time to eat, and in a more subtle way, tells them that they – like Sylvester Stallone’s boxer character, Rocky Balboa – can overcome challenges.
“Rocky started with nothing and he rose to the top as world champion,” Timothy said as the hungry men, women and children emerged from their cardboard boxes under Interstate 45. “And these people here don’t have much. I just wanted to give them a little hope that they can rise to the top.”
On Thanksgiving Day, as he does every weekday, the 56-year-old Timothy will nourish those in need. Each will get a bowl of soup and a healthy portion of hope. But for the holiday meal, he’ll also serve up something special: turkey sandwiches bought in memory of his wife, Peggy, who died a month ago after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
“She was always a cheerleader for the SoupMobile,” said Timothy, whose red “S” on his shirt gives his nickname as “SoupMan.” “She had a real heart for helping people and I feel she is with me every time I turn the key to start the SoupMobile.”
To the hundreds he assists, Timothy is more like Superman than Soupman.

I thought about that story and that still-active ministry after reading Religion News Service managing editor Yonat Shimron's recent compelling take on a mobile ministry that serves the homeless in wealthy Silicon Valley.

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Churches and the homeless: Oregon media do the best job crediting who's really helping out

Churches and the homeless: Oregon media do the best job crediting who's really helping out

Homelessness is a huge problem on the West Coast, which seems to be the nation’s new mecca for tent cities, shelters and encampments under the freeways. California alone has 25 percent of the nation’s homeless population and when the weather gets warm, a lot of them migrate north to Oregon and Washington.

Several mayors of large cities in three states met in December to figure out how to solve a problem that’s increasingly taking up public money and sidewalk space.

The Oregonian did a series on the problem a year ago, as Portland’s lenient policies on sidewalk residents –- along with a lack of low-cost housing –- have attracted a large population. Willamette Week recently compared Portland’s generous policies with other West Coast cities. And the homeless problem here in Seattle has become so epic, photographers are doing year-long projects about it.

As I’ve scanned bunches of articles on this phenomenon, I’ve noticed a dearth of mentions on the churches that are out there helping the homeless. There are some exceptions, such as this 2004 Los Angeles Times piece on Azusa Pacific University’s homeless outreach.

Note: I had to go back 12 years to find that one.

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A homeless man, Tony Romo and 'a flashing neon sign from God'

A homeless man, Tony Romo and 'a flashing neon sign from God'

Hungry for some leftover turkey?

Actually, this story from the Houston Chronicle is a Thanksgiving feast — an absolute delight from the newspaper's holiday front page last Thursday.

It's an amazing profile of a formerly homeless man who is now "paying and praying it forward," as the Chronicle describes it.

Let's start at the top with a longer-than-normal chunk of the story. I apologize for the length, but this superb intro sets the scene for the entire piece:

Bobby Depper slips his arm through the straps of a backpack. Then another. And another, until five are piled on his back like a stack of pancakes. It’s a 30-minute walk to the train station, then a 35-minute ride to north Houston. Depper doesn’t fidget with the bags or sit down on the empty train. He just grabs a handrail and waits for his work to begin.
Off the train, Depper bounds toward a strip of grass between a Wal-Mart and a parking lot, where a group of men sit on the ground beneath a cluster of trees. This is how he spends his days: searching for homeless people, giving them backpacks and, if they’re willing, treating them to meals. He has given away hundreds of backpacks in the last several months. Demand never dwindles.
Depper remembers when he needed a backpack.
Five years ago, he slept beneath a pile of newspapers in a Dumpster behind a Dallas restaurant, his clothes and medicine water-logged.
“I was just so angry, and I said, if (God) is real, I guess I’ll shout out at him. If he’s real, I guess he’ll hear me now,” Depper recalls. When he woke the next morning, he couldn’t see out of his right eye. He crawled out of the garbage and asked the restaurant’s valet for spare change so he could catch a bus to the hospital. Depper was an addict at the time, so parts of the morning are hazy. But he says he’ll never forget what happened next. A man stepped out of a car in the valet line.
“He said not to give me any change, and I thought, ‘How could anyone say that?’” Depper recalls. “But then I turned around and he was handing me a $100 bill.”
The man was Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who asked Depper to “pay it forward.”
Romo remembers giving the $100 bill to Depper. It’s the kind of thing the quarterback does sometimes, though Cowboys spokesman Rich Dalrymple said Romo “isn’t really comfortable talking about it publicly.”
It was a quiet act for Romo. But for Depper, it was a flashing neon sign from God.

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Spot the religion ghosts in story about homeless man's attack on actress Pauley Perrette?

Spot the religion ghosts in story about homeless man's attack on actress Pauley Perrette?

So, news consumers, which of the following two news story lines do you find the most poignant?

(1) A Hollywood star is mugged by a mysterious homeless man who threatens to kill her.

(2) A Hollywood star who does regular volunteer work with a homeless ministry -- perhaps linked to her church -- is mugged by a homeless man who threatens to kill her.

Now, the USA Today story about this incident involving Pauley Perrette does hint at the religious ghosts in this event. It also included a photo of the essay the actress posted in social media about the incident. That text contains several faith references. We will come back to that in a moment.

Anyway, here is how the story begins:

NCIS actress Pauley Perrette, who plays the show's Goth crime lab tech Abby Scuito, had a real-life scare Thursday in Los Angeles. A "psychotic homeless man" jumped her on the street outside her home and punched her in the face several times.
"I almost died tonight," she wrote on Twitter. "Tonight was awful, life changing and I'm only grateful to be alive."
Perrette recounted the incident in detail in an essay, which she photographed and attached to her post. In it, she said the man kept telling her his name (William) and that he was going to kill her. "I was alone, terrified and trapped," she said, grateful he hadn't dragged her to a empty garage nearby. "I knew if he got me in there, I was dead."

And here is how it ends:

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