A meal and a home for one night

John has a doctor’s appointment this week at the Veterans Administration hospital. He’s already figuring out what it’ll take to get there when we talk Sunday evening.

John and 13 other homeless men are at the First Congregational Church where I join them to spend the night and hear their stories. First Congregational and more than a dozen other area churches take turns for a week or two at a time, housing the overflow from the Homeward Bound shelter on North Avenue. Another similarly-sized group of men are housed this night at a second church.

These single men get bumped out of the North Avenue facility when its beds are occupied by families and ex-servicemen enrolled in a Veterans Administration-funded program for homeless vets. Volunteers from the congregations monitor the overnight stays, provide snacks and a hot breakfast, reading materials and a welcoming attitude.

Homeward Bound transports the men to the various churches after serving them dinner and provides bedding and cots. Staff and volunteer drivers for the program, a cooperative effort of the shelter and Grand Valley Peace and Justice, also make certain their guests are sober. They collect knives, Leatherman-style tools and anything else that might be a potential weapon, for return the next morning.

“I could still be productive, but 100 percent of my energy goes into being homeless,” John tells me. “It’s a nightmare, but it could be worse.”

Worse, I suppose, is relative.

John’s a disabled veteran diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He’s a machinist who used to make parts for missiles, but the now-noticeable effects of his illness sap his energy and make that sort of precision work impossible. He’s on a waiting list for subsidized Section 8 housing that would be affordable with his disability payments.

In the meantime, home is the streets. He’s trying to find a job he can handle, something part-time, something manageable given his disability. I’ve watched him starting to hem up a pair of donated jeans, a task he says might take him a week or two to complete. One of the church volunteers offers to take them home and do the job on a machine and return them the next night.

There are other stories volunteered by the few men who decide it’s OK to talk. I’ve introduced myself and they know I’ll be writing about my stay. But I don’t want to force myself into their space.

One has a job interview scheduled this week. He’s a former rig worker now 50 years old — “too old to swing a 20-pound hammer.” Injured on the job, his workers’ comp and unemployment benefits exhausted following surgeries, pain medication also took its toll. When he got tired of being high, he got help from a pain counselor at the Marillac Clinic.

Like all the other men, he chooses from the list of necessary tasks and helps take care of what needs to be done at this temporary home. “I feel obligated,” he tells me.

So does the would-be entrepreneur who hopes to package and sell his barbeque sauce at the business incubator if a hoped-for loan from family members comes through. He visited his five-year-old son earlier in the day and wants to reunite his family.  At one point they were all staying at the North Avenue shelter and he talks about the stress of having to wake his kids early and spend days on the streets and in parks while the shelter is closed.

For him, the church stays are preferable, offering more privacy and a little peace and quiet. “You’re treated like a human being rather than a child,” he tells me. So does John, who could enroll in the program for vets that might guarantee him a bed at Homeward Bound. That, he says, would require him to stay there every crowded night, negating his plan to rent a motel room and watch the Super Bowl on Sunday.

I ask John where he’d be tonight if he wasn’t bunking at First Congregational. “That’s a good question,” he replies quietly.

I try to imagine what that must feel like, but it’s impossible. I have a choice John and 25 other men don’t have this night. I have a place to call home.

Jim Spehar is glad to live in a community where churches like First Congregational and volunteers like Van, Dave and JoAnn give their time and treasure to help others. Your thoughts are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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