SEATTLE – Every evening from October through April, Catholics at several local parishes quietly serve homeless men by giving them a warm place to sleep.
But their ministry is about more than providing the men with food, shelter and safety.
“You’re really there to be with them in solidarity,” said Anna Horton, who has volunteered with the winter shelter at St. James Cathedral for some 20 years.
Parishes like St. James provide “overflow” space for St. Martin de Porres Shelter in South Seattle, which serves men 50 and older. When the 212-bed shelter (operated by Catholic Community Services of Western Washington) is full, men waiting for a bed are picked up by parishioners and brought to the parish to spend the night.
As a ministry of presence, the parish shelters offer the opportunity to see Jesus in people experiencing homelessness — and for them to see Jesus in the volunteers helping them, said Jennifer Newman, a CCS program director.
The one-on-one experience at the parish shelters is extremely meaningful for a population that is often ignored, she said.
“They don’t have things that we often take for granted,” such as eye contact and conversation, Newman said. “Just to have people in relationship is really powerful.”
A quiet place to rest
Each night, 34 men are sheltered at local parishes, Newman said. Parishes assist on different nights, with some opening their doors two nights a week, and others as often as five nights.
Besides St. James, participating parishes include Christ the King, Our Lady of Fatima, St. John the Evangelist, St. Joseph, St. Mary and St. Therese. Two Lutheran churches also provide overflow shelter, Newman said.
The men generally look forward to spending the night at the parishes, Newman said, because there are fewer people in a space that is larger, quieter, and offers a chance for conversation.
“Many of them just want a quiet place to rest,” said Patrick Barredo, director of social outreach and advocacy at St. James, which hosts 14 men in Cathedral Hall four nights a week. “We just welcome them in what kind of condition they are in.”
Older homeless populations are more vulnerable and face challenges getting into permanent housing, Newman said. They live on fixed incomes, have aged out of the workforce and have medical needs. “We’re seeing more and more extreme medical challenges,” she noted.
Despite the additional space at the parish shelters, St. Martin de Porres often had a waiting list to get a shelter bed, Newman said. That changed in 2018, for two reasons, Newman said: Case managers have helped find permanent housing for 200-plus men each year, and CCS’ Lazarus Center added 49 shelter beds when it moved to a new location in South Seattle. Now, St. Martin de Porres and the parishes are able to provide enough space for the men who show up each night, she added.
Volunteers of all ages make it work
Hosting the shelters takes many volunteers who do everything from meal preparation and cleanup to transportation and staying the night with the men. Men arrive with a blanket provided by St. Martin de Porres, while the parishes provide sleeping mats. An evening meal or snack is usually provided, with breakfast in the morning.
At Our Lady of Fatima Parish in the Magnolia neighborhood, about 80 families are signed up to help; the parish hosts 10 men two nights a week in the parish office building.
“It’s a whole community parish effort,” said Sue Patneaude, who helped start the winter shelter 14 years ago. “All I care about is that people will be taken care of and that nobody suffers on the street,” she added.
St. Joseph Parish hosts seven to 10 men five nights a week with the help of some 70 volunteers, said Deacon Steve Wodzanowski. St. James has 75 volunteers on its roster, including young adults, families who bring breakfast, and many people who have been helping for years, Barredo said.
“Most of our shelter volunteers come and stay,” Horton said. “They just love it.”
And their efforts make a real difference for the men they host.
“Through relationship and friendship, people are able to make a transformation in life,” Newman said.