I was sent on another interesting newspaper assignment yesterday—I went to a small neighborhood church that has turned its basement into a homeless shelter. We've got an official homeless shelter here, but it has a waiting list for single men, so the overflow goes to this church. In fact, local police departments will pick up willing transients on cold nights and take them to the church.
The men sleep on specially designed mats that can be disinfected easily; and they have a refrigerator, a microwave and a pantry stocked with basic food. They do their own cooking, and they clean the place, and they keep themselves in order. There seems to be a pecking order, actually, with the man who's lived there the longest being in charge. The men sign off on a list of rules in order to stay there–the usual stuff like no drinking or smoking on the premises, and I assume no girls allowed. If they break the rules more than once, they're out.
This really is a neighborhood church, and so the neighbors were concerned at first. Some of the men had visitors who were making passes at girls and generally being creepy, but the visitors were booted, and the neighbors seem to be appeased for now. The men do odd jobs for the neighbors, like raking leaves and shoveling snow, and they look after a 90-year-old man who lives across the street. They'll join him on his front porch on warm evenings for a smoke or a beer or both, and he enjoys their company. They take care of his house and lawn, and they keep an eye on the church property like guardians. This is one of those rare churches that never locks its sanctuary doors, so these guys keep a wary eye.
At the church, I was met by the reverend, the warden (elder) and the financial officer, and they told me all about this project of theirs. Then they took me down to the undercroft where the men sleep-one of the men was there and was out cold. I made a point to whisper and said I didn't want to wake him, but the warden bellowed in full voice, "It's OK. That doesn't matter." The sleeping man never flinched. The place was spotless, and I understand the residents keep it that way.
The whole thing reminds me of the men in Tortilla Flat, except these guys don't have a dog and they don't trash the doctor's house with the ladies of the whore house. They have formed a community of sorts and will even be part of the 2010 census, using the church as their address.
The thing that really struck me with this story is how the church's insurance company reacted. The financial officer called them to explain they had all these men living there. The men aren't allowed to use the stove anymore because of the fire they started, but who knows what else might happen. The insurance representative said they were covered—"You're doing what the church is supposed to be doing, helping the less fortunate."
Doesn't that help restore a little faith in humanity? This church, even with its limited funds and small congregation, is doing what it's supposed to be doing, and it's covered. In many cases, the men the church are helping are chronically homeless, not men who just suddenly fell on hard times. Some of them are alcoholics or addicts. One of the youngest, an 18-year-old, has diabetes and can't afford insulin but can't go home. Some of them have mental illnesses that aren't always treated as they should be. But you can't throw these people away. And you can't turn your back on them as if you don't see them because what kind of people would we be if we allowed men to die of hunger or insulin shock or to freeze in a harsh winter because they are flawed. Aren't we all flawed?
The church is doing what it's supposed to be doing. The reverend describes himself as a fiscal conservative but a social liberal. The financial officer will buy shoes for a man who shows up shoeless and will drive a man two hours to the funeral of his sister because he doesn't have a car. I wouldn't mind being part of a church like that.