Hospitality, housing and hope

Tacoma’s new Nativity House aims to create a pathway out of homelessness

By Jean Parietti

Ray Fair expertly chops carrots for the homemade soup that will feed more than 100 homeless men and women at Nativity House. Giving up part of his Saturday every month to volunteer in the kitchen is a way of giving back for all that Nativity House has done for him.

Ray Fair began volunteering in the Nativity House kitchen when he was homeless.
Photo caption: Ray Fair began volunteering in the Nativity House kitchen when he was homeless. Photo: Jean Parietti

"Nativity House is my life," Ray said of the drop-in center that gives Tacoma’s homeless residents a daytime refuge. "It would have been so easy for me to just walk away because everything is so good for me now," he said. "I kind of need this. It keeps me grounded; it reminds me of where I came from."

He pauses, his eyes welling up. Ray knows that he’s "one step away from going back."

Twelve years ago, Ray became homeless after being laid off from his Boeing job, then losing his house and getting divorced. With no place to call his own, the Navy veteran slept at shelters or bunked with friends willing to help him out. "I was just down," he said.

Nativity House became a constant in his life. Every chance he got, he came to help out. For three years, he did the dishes twice a day and stayed late to clean up. At Nativity House, Ray found acceptance, a sense of worth and positive relationships.

Humble beginnings
Nativity House began simply on Christmas Eve 1979 —  just a Jesuit priest and two volunteers with a now-legendary loaf of bread, jar of peanut butter and pot of coffee, welcoming the homeless into a warm storefront. Today, the center is a major part of Catholic Community Services’ homeless outreach in Pierce County.

Nativity House offers meals five days a week and a variety of services, from help getting bus tickets to a therapeutic art room. "Guests" can make phone calls, pick up mail, store their belongings and just hang out. But when the doors close at 5 p.m., those who want a safe place to spend the night must walk about a mile to reach CCS’ Tacoma Avenue Shelter.

Next fall, that walk will be much shorter — just through a doorway — when CCS consolidates and expands its homeless programs in one location, up the hill near the CCS Tahoma Center and St. Leo the Great Church. "We’re invigorating the services we are providing," said Nick Leider, director of Homeless Adult Services for CCS’ Southwest Region.

The new Nativity House in Tacoma will provide 50 apartments for Pierce County’s most chronically homeless people. The project also includes a meal program, an overnight shelter and supportive services.
The new Nativity House in Tacoma will provide 50 apartments for Pierce County’s most chronically homeless people. The project also includes a meal program, an overnight shelter and supportive services. Rendering courtesy of Catholic Community Services


Regaining stability

The new $16 million Nativity House will provide 50 units of permanent housing for the chronically homeless and combine three programs with long histories in the community: Nativity House, Hospitality Kitchen (which also provides meals and services) and the Tacoma Avenue Shelter.

It will allow CCS to build on its ministry to the most marginalized — "those that are outcast, those that we find it most difficult to relate to in our society," said Denny Hunthausen, vice president and agency director for CCS' Southwest Region. "We know that's where we often find Jesus among us."

With $11 million in government and private investments in place, a campaign is under way to raise the remaining $5 million, including $2.5 million for supportive services to help clients out of homelessness.

Nativity House and the people there have played a key role in Ray's journey through five years of homelessness and seven years of working to regain stability in his life. Recently graduated from a technical training program, he hopes to find a job in the aerospace industry and plans to buy a house soon.

"As painful as everything I went through, it benefitted me. You can be down and be defeated or you can choose it as a learning curve," he reflected. "I have been blessed to have people who encouraged me and are like family." 

Serving the homeless

Each year, CCS homeless programs in Pierce County provide:
• 401,232 meals
• 52,954 shelter nights
• 21,580 clothing items
• 12,000 hours of volunteer service
• 1,000 hours of art therapy
• 331 housing units


November 22, 2013