Aug 18, 2005


Homeless shelter to be homeless

“TRUTH” beckons the homeless in tall blue letters on the windows of an old storefront across West Sprague Avenue from the Spokane Intermodal Center.

A group of men wait outside just after dusk to gain entry to the last refuge of the down and out.

For the past year and a half, Truth Ministries has provided shelter to the city’s most destitute inhabitants, many of whom have been denied access to other facilities for the homeless because of behavioral problems.

By the end of the month, this homeless shelter will itself be cast out. Its landlord, Spokane businessman Mick McDowell, who has allowed Truth Ministries to operate rent-free, is negotiating the sale of the building at 238 W. Sprague.

But the shelter, run by Christian lay ministers Marty and Julie McKinney, is not called Truth Ministries for nothing. For the McKinneys, certain truths are beyond dispute – “Jesus is who he says he is,” and “God has not led us this far only to let us down now,” McKinney is fond of saying.

“If you want to continue to see homeless people off the street and their lives turned around,” Marty McKinney said, “we need a place.”

The men who had been waiting on West Sprague know the drill. Some of them have been sleeping at Truth Ministries for months. They file in each evening at 8 p.m. They sign the register. They pay one dollar if they have it to spare. They turn over their personal items to be locked away for the night. They submit to a pat-down search if requested to do so.

The shelter’s door is open to them whether they are drunk or sober, but alcohol, drugs and weapons are not permitted.

There to greet the homeless are familiar faces – the McKinneys, perhaps their son, Kelsey, 17, or Julie McKinney’s sister, Jackie Ford, and Steven Brown, a volunteer who used to sleep under a bridge before finding the Truth Ministries more than a year ago. Now he has his own place in a downtown apartment, and he has a calling, helping others in the same situation he once found himself.

The McKinneys have sacrificed much for what they see as the privilege of caring for the homeless at Truth Ministries, an outreach of Mending Fences Fellowship. They draw no salary for their work and have seen their family’s annual income go from $38,000 two years ago to $9,000 last year. Julie McKinney receives the modest amount in another part-time job as a home care provider.

“Though the grace of God we’ve gotten by,” she said.

But getting by has not been easy.

Just before Christmas 2003, the Fire Department closed their first makeshift homeless shelter at 1002 E. Montgomery after complaints from neighbors and police. Refusing to give up, the McKinneys opened and closed several shelters in Spokane Valley, playing hide-and-seek with authorities until McDowell offered them his building on West Sprague in April 2004.

Since then, their legal drop-in shelter has earned the respect of downtown business people, other charities and the Spokane Police Department.

A letter of reference for Truth Ministries from Chief Roger Bragdon, dated Aug. 9, reads in part, “They work hard to empower instead of enable those who seek out their help by finding jobs, food, clothing, housing, etc. Thus, Truth Ministries provides an important ‘outside-the-box’ approach to addressing homelessness at both an individual and community level.”

On Wednesday, Deputy Chief Jim Nicks said despite initial concerns by police, the McKinneys “run a good operation.” He said the department is hoping Truth Ministries can find a place and continue its mission.

One night this week, an old-timer who had been sleeping outdoors walked in to the shelter off the street. He just didn’t have it in him to make the trek up the South Hill to where he had been camping. The beds for men were full this night – 37 people had checked in – but McKinney offered him a mattress on the floor.

“I got a couple a beers in my backpack,” said the homeless man with the full gray beard.

“That’s alright. We’ll lock it up,” McKinney said. “Thanks for being honest.”

After check-in, some of the men dined on food they had brought with them. Those without their own food were offered Top Ramen, a plastic bowl and a spoon. Some went straight to bed, tired after working jobs they have found after moving into the shelter. Others, perhaps a dozen, waited in the shelter’s anteroom for Bible study, which opened with a prayer:

“I thank you, Lord, for letting me do your will and not mine,” prayed one man, approaching 50 years old. “I thank you for another day clean and sober.”

Last winter, the women’s segregated bedrooms at the shelter also were full, but this time of year Truth Ministries accepts only overflow from Hope House, which shelters female walk-ins. House of Charity, run by Catholic Charities, does not offer beds for the night during summer months. The Union Gospel Mission allows walk-ins to stay for 30 days, McKinney said, but then the men must choose to enter the mission’s rehabilitation program or leave.

Willie Carter, 49, a native of Birmingham, Ala., has been sleeping at Truth Ministries for four months. After Bible study, he said he would not have gotten a job at a wood products business had it not been for the shelter, which offered him a clean bed and a place to shower.

“I would be in jail or dead,” Carter said.

McKinney takes pride in the more than 50 homeless people he has seen leave Truth Ministries to find jobs and places of their own. But he and his family have seen more than their share of sadness, as well.

A one-legged man named Lloyd recently died of cirrhosis a month after he stopped drinking while he was a guest of the shelter. McKinney’s son, Kelsey, who had bathed and cared for the transient when he was at his worst, took the death hard.

Now the shelter, which will have to move by Aug. 31, is asking for help from the community.

“We have exhausted every resource,” said McKinney, who is asking for a place big enough to house his operation and funding to survive. Truth Ministries receives just enough in donations, combined with $300 to $400 a month from its $1-a-night guests, to pay utilities and insurance.

Still, McKinney counts himself better off than the wealthiest family in Spokane.

“I wouldn’t trade them,” he said. “I’m rich, and I can take my riches with me.”

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