Roy Thompson sits on a bed at Truth Ministries in Spokane last Thursday night. The 50-bed shelter gives the homeless a safe place to spend the night.
Dec. 13, 2004
Last chance for the homeless
The Truth Ministries homeless shelter in downtown Spokane is the last stop for the down and out.
“We get the population that is kicked out of everywhere else,” director Marty McKinney said. “We get the tough ones.”
Truth Ministries shelter, 238 W. Sprague, takes in the fighters, the drinkers and the drug users that the Union Gospel Mission and the House of Charity will not – and it takes some kind of bad attitude to be barred from those places in the dead of winter.
McKinney and his wife, Julie, had to fight to be able to shelter the people society has rejected.
Just before Christmas last year, the Spokane Fire Department shut down the makeshift homeless shelter that the McKinneys’ church, Mending Fences Fellowship, was operating at 1002 E. Montgomery. The church had started taking in the homeless after the city closed the end-of-the-line shelter operated by New Opportunities Inc. after numerous run-ins with police and complaints from neighbors.
After the Mending Fences shelter was closed, the McKinneys and other church members played hide-and-seek with fire marshals, opening and closing clandestine shelters six times at Spokane Valley properties owned by a sympathetic businessman, Julie McKinney said.
Her pastor, the Rev. Kevin Ch’en, had asked his congregation to volunteer to pick up the homeless in vans and transport them from downtown each night and back each morning, McKinney said. That went on until April, when Spokane businessman Mick McDowell offered the homeless activists the use of his West Sprague property.
Truth Ministries now operates a legal drop-in shelter with beds for 14 women and 36 men. Some guests have found a feeling family with the McKinneys. The shelter is full every night.
“We prayed, and God opened a door to us,” McKinney said. The McKinneys reopen that door each night at 8.
The homeless are allowed into the shelter whether they are drunk or sober, but alcohol, drugs and weapons are not permitted. Marty McKinney, a recovered alcoholic and drug user, pats the guests down and searches their belongings.
On a cold, wet night last week, the director confiscated two hypodermic syringes from the belongings of a homeless young man who showed up at the shelter with his father.
The father was allowed to stay, but the youth had to go. McKinney found him the last available bed at the House of Charity, a large shelter run by Catholic Charities. Earlier in the evening, McKinney had taken a problem off the hands of House of Charity when he picked up an elderly man named “Pops,” who was drunk and belligerent. McKinney brought Pops back to Truth Ministries, cleaned him up and gave him a bed.
“If they screw up here, we boot them out, and they have to come talk to me to get back in,” McKinney said. “We lay down the law. We have to because it’s just too dangerous.”
He said his guests understand and respect the rules. “They know we are the last straw.”
McKinney said he knows of about 50 homeless people, former guests, who have gotten off the streets. The majority of people who come through the shelter are just down on their luck and need help until they can get back on their feet, he said. Some, like Pops, will never get off the streets.
Wesley Hall, a native of Alabama, is 29. His girlfriend, Michelle Veraspir, who attended University High in Spokane Valley, is 20 and expecting a baby in April. They were homeless when they met in Spokane. He has been on the street since he lost his job more than two years ago. She said she lost her home when her alcoholic ex-boyfriend, who did not pay the bills, went to live with his parents. She had nowhere to go.
Hall said he has been kicked out of the House of Charity because of his attitude and propensity toward violence. The two have been sleeping at Truth Ministries for a month. They want to leave town in February to live with her sister.
“If we were just scraping by, we’d stay. But we’re not making it here,” said Hall, who is looking for work so he can marry Veraspir.
He said employers are wary of hiring the homeless. “They say, ‘We’ve tried people, and it didn’t work out.’ It’s depressing. All I’m trying to do is take care of her and the baby.”
Most homeless couples do not last long because of drugs, alcohol, the lack of privacy and the influence of other homeless, Hall said.After Hall and Veraspir pass inspection, they go to their separate sleeping quarters, small rooms with twin bunk beds and a single bed in between. Men and women sleep in separate areas at Truth Ministries. The guests pay $1 a night if they have it. Lights out is at 11:30 p.m. A volunteer stays up all night on “fire watch” and to take care of any problems.
Steven Brown, 43, is a volunteer at the shelter. He came to Truth Ministries as a guest two months ago, but has since moved into his own apartment with the help of the Spokane Housing Authority.
Brown, a 1980 graduate of Ferris High School, became homeless three years ago when he lost his job with a convenience store chain. A bad back prevented him from doing anything but light work. When he failed to pay his rent, his roommates kicked him out. Brown said he lived under bridges until he came to Truth Ministries.
“Volunteering gives you a sense of self-worth,” he said. That’s important to someone who has been homeless. “Homelessness makes you think there’s nowhere to go in life.”
The McKinneys have made the shelter their life’s work. Julie McKinney is a part-time home caregiver, but her husband and sister, Jackie Ford, have quit their jobs to work at the Truth Ministries full-time. Even the McKinney’s 16-year-old son, Kelsey, works there two nights a week. They are praying that God will help them with their finances.
With the help of their church and a couple of donors, they have managed to pay the $900 a month in utilities and insurance, Marty McKinney said. But they have not been able to “give a dime” to their landlord, who is not pressing them on the issue.
Last Thursday, when all the shelter’s guests for the night cleared inspection, some of them went back into the waiting room to watch Bill Murray in “Scrooged” – a movie version of Charles Dickens for our time. A large “Passion of the Christ” poster hung on a wall. The room smelled of old furniture and liquored breath. Homeless men dozed on the floor while other men and women watched the small screen.
Curled up in a cast-off easy chair was Richard Holley, 39. The Moses Lake High School graduate arrived in Spokane four months ago with his girlfriend after losing his job as a glazier in Phoenix. Their car burned up in Portland with everything they owned, including their money and Holley’s identification. They hitchhiked to Spokane.
“It was like coming home,” said Holley as his girlfriend slept in her room.
He said he is trying to get Arizona to send him identification so he can work at a temporary employment agency. In the meantime, he waits outside House of Charity for someone to drive by and offer work moving furniture or clearing yard debris. He said he hopes it snows so he can shovel walks. Each time he makes $30 or $40 he puts half of it away. House of Charity holds his savings for him.
The couple slept outside until the weather turned bad about a month ago. He said Truth Ministries has been a godsend. He knows things will work out
The worst part is not having your own space, Holley said. The homeless have no privacy. They wait in line for everything – food, clothes, whatever. There are also the gifts from other homeless people, a sandwich or a warmer coat.
“You’d be surprised,” Holley said. “Homeless people are more generous than anyone I have ever met.”
As the TV movie, a comedic retelling of “A Christmas Carol,” drew to a close and the shelter guests got up to find their beds, the cast of “Scrooged” began to sing:
“And the world will be a better place if you put a little love in your heart.”
Holley, like others who found shelter at Truth Ministries last week, believes he will not be homeless forever. He is just waiting for his chance.