Sunday, June 5, 2016

Sleeping in Church

By Sarah Rohrs


An empty Sunday school classroom
Three youth could barely eat their dinner of spaghetti and salad because their teeth hurt so much. Of them, a girl of 13 or 14, walked up to a man and asked him for his tube of Orajel. He gladly handed it to her and told her she could use it whenever she needed to. They gave each other a friendly little hand bump as the tube slid from one hand to another. As I watched I could tell this ritual of passing around tubes of Orajel was common among them.

The tiny tubes of Orajel are what struck me the most in my brief stint as a
Salem Interfaith Hospitality Network volunteer at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Salem. It was the week four homeless families stayed in the UUCS’s children’s wing. Orajel provides temporary relief for dental pain but hardly solves the problem of dental pain and untreated cavities in children, and infected gums and roots in adults. As I watched the girl palm the tube into her pocket, I wondered how many other children of homeless families are going without basic dental care, their teeth and gums rotting and inflamed well before adulthood.

The four families staying at the UUCS were ones of many that have cycled through the SIHN, a program that launched in Salem in 1997. As SIHN Executive Director TJ Putman explained during an interview on KMUZ’s Willamette Wake-Up, the program began when a local pastor heard a shocking statistic - 1,000 homeless kids in the Salem-Keizer School District. He thought congregations should do something. Most evenings, church buildings sit empty, he figured. How could they be used to help the families?

Today, 34 churches in Salem take part in the Salem Interfaith Hospitality Network. The need and demand grows daily, Putman told KMUZ during radio interviews in April and May. Putman said that each month, SIHN turns away nearly 40 families due to lack of space.  Between April 1 and May 15 of this year, he said, 70 families, including 200 children, were turned away. SIHN is the only emergency shelter program for homeless families in Salem.

Some 18 churches serve as host churches, providing overnight shelter for up to four families for one week at a time. Other churches in the network provide support in other ways, like monetary or in-kind donations.  Volunteers at the host churches make meals, play with and socialize with kids and their parents, and also stay overnight with the families.

The stated aim of the program is to get the families into permanent housing with the means to support themselves. Generally, each morning, after breakfast,
SIHN Day Center on Edgewater Street
the children are taken to school, and, unless they are employed, the adults are taken to SIHN Day Center in West Salem where they work with case managers on finding jobs, public assistance and housing.  SIHN also administers the City of Salem's HUD-funded tenant based rental assistance program (which SIHN has dubbed "Fresh Start") which can cover security deposits and rent for up to six months.

During my volunteer stint I helped out in the kitchen a little bit by doing things
like setting the buffet table where the families would come in and get their meals. I tried to keep busy, but wondered where all the families where.

I walked around to find them. Most were in the classrooms. Sitting on cots and other bedding arrangements, they talked among themselves, or used their phone devices or laptop computers. Many were reading or just relaxing. Most of the youth in these families were not young, but in their teen years. They seemed wrapped up in computers and phones. I did not want to intrude on their private and family time so I stayed out of the rooms.

Classroom as shelter
As people came out for dinner, one preteen girl looked as if she might start crying. “No one else is wearing pajamas,” she cried out as she stopped in the Fellowship Hall and acted as if she might run back into the rooms. Her mom assured her everything would be all right. I stood at the door and welcomed her to the tables and told her what was for dinner. She didn’t look at me. Her face was all red.

I was struck with how stressed out the parents looked. One man told me he was
sick with the flu and indicated the illness was being spread throughout the local homeless shelters. Another boy seemed sheepish as got his spaghetti and then sat down. I told him he was welcome to take some garlic bread, too. His face lit up as I showed him where the slices were on the buffet table and he grabbed just one.

The volunteers who had made dinner sat at a table amongst themselves. We  had been instructed to eat with the families. So, I pulled up a chair at a table where one family sat, and asked if I could sit with them. The father, a wiry fellow who looked like he had loads on his mind, gave me some kind of response. It obviously didn’t matter to him one way or another.

At the table were his wife and a 13-year-old boy and a younger boy about 7 or 8. The younger one had on head phones and listened to country music during dinner while the older one engaged in considerable verbal sparring with his mom. She wanted to tell me what a good artist her 13-year-old was and that he may be able to get a scholarship of some kind. Clearly pleased with the attention, he bragged about his talents and talked over her each chance he got.

At one point, the mother tried to remember when they celebrated a birthday of one of the boys. She ticked off all the shelters and motels they had stayed in, trying to count back. From what I could tell they had been homeless for at least three years. She sadly told him “Oh yes, we were in a motel that year.”

As I sat there dutifully eating my spaghetti I wondered how many schools the kids had been in, how many times they had lost everything in move after move. Then the mother looked worriedly at her older boy and asked him about his tonsils. He said he couldn’t eat much because he was in pain. “Oh, those just got to come out,” she said.

Meanwhile, the man had finished eating and nervously chewed on a toothpick. I tried to engage him in a conversation about staying at the churches. He was quick to stay he appreciated the churches and how nice everyone was, but almost as an aside, he remarked quietly that it was very stressful to move each week.  

I went to get them more water and some dessert, and then listened as the older boy argued with his mother while she tried to talk about her passion for sewing and fabric art. At the end of dinner, I wished them well and the man thanked me politely. I could tell I was one in many volunteers that they would encounter.

In our interview with TJ Putman, we asked him if one church with a great deal of unused space, perhaps one in a central location, might not be better than
moving the families every week. He said a more permanent shelter would be better, but that would not be practical for the churches or the volunteers. He said it’s a lot easier to get people to volunteer if they can do so at their own church. If one church served as a shelter volunteers at that church would get burned out and people might not want to volunteer at another church.

Homeless families are continuously asking for help through the program. Putman said the adults must undergo a background check, screening, and cannot use drugs or alcohol while in the program. They must also show a willingness and commitment to look for work and develop life-skills like how to be a good tenant. Last year, the program served 52 families, placing 80 percent in permanent housing, according to the SIHN website.

The churches make up the heart of the Salem Interfaith Hospitality Network, but the program also receives funding through the City of Salem and other sources, including the United Way. Putman told us that City funding pays the mortgage on SIHN's day center, for its case managers, and for its tenant-based rental assistance program. 

“It’s not just the homeless being served but we're also empowering congregations to make the differences. We do we have the capacity as a community to come together,” Putman said.

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