Churches extend helping hands to homeless

6/1/2020

By Kathy L. Gilbert, UM News

From helping people file for the government’s coronavirus aid checks to turning a church parking lot into a tent camp, United Methodist churches are finding new and different ways to help those who are homeless or living in poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Centenary Community Ministries in Macon, Georgia, has been holding twice-weekly sessions since April 15 to help people apply for the $1,200 aid package offered by the U.S. government.

“It is a shame that the people most in need of this stimulus check are the ones who have to jump through the most hoops to get it,” said the Rev. Eric Mayle, executive director of the nonprofit agency created by Centenary United Methodist Church, where he is also an associate pastor.

Volunteers sitting behind folding tables have helped more than 50 people to date fill out complicated tax forms and applications. If those checks all come in, that is $62,400 for people in dire need.

“To give you an idea of how vital this is, $1,200 will keep some people afloat who are just scraping by,” Mayle said. “It has the potential to be a huge benefit — that’s a car, that’s a first month’s rent and deposit on an apartment.”

Mayle said he would be happy to share what they have learned with anyone needing help getting started on a similar project. Now is the time for churches to act, he said, since it is unclear when the program may end.

Many homeless shelters had to shut their doors because of the pandemic, but one church in Oregon helped people find a home on their parking lot.

About 80 campers on the parking lot at Harmony United Methodist Church in Coos Bay start their day with coffee in the parking lot — made by church members who also put out donated breakfast food like doughnuts.

The Rev. Don Ford said it all started with one homeless person who didn’t have a place to go. The pastor let the man sleep in his car on the parking lot in February 2019.

When the pandemic started raging, the need grew.

Outdoor toilets and hand-washing stations were installed when the coronavirus restrictions began in March and people were no longer allowed inside the church restrooms, he said.

Lunch is brought in on different days by church members, a social service agency and a group of friends. Church members are often around to lend a hand with cleaning or whatever needs to be done. They encourage hand-washing and social distancing as best they can. The Oregon-Idaho Conference has offered their disaster response trailer if needed.

For now, Ford says, the church continues reaching out to those in need and loving their neighbors.

“I truly believe in living one’s faith and this campsite is living our faith,” he said.

On Saturday, April 4, United Methodist congregations in San Francisco committed $100,000 to shelter homeless San Franciscans in vacant hotel rooms.

The nine United Methodist churches of San Francisco — Bethany, Geneva Avenue, Grace, Jones Memorial, Park Presidio, Pine, San Francisco Chinese, San Francisco Korean and Temple — raised the initial $100,000.

The Rev. Staci Current, Bay District superintendent of the California Nevada Conference, spoke about dedicating $100,000 to care for the most vulnerable in the week leading up to Easter.

“Especially during Holy Week, we offer this gift as a tangible expression of our faithful Christian response to Jesus' invitation to care for the most vulnerable,” she said. “We encourage other faith communities, corporations and the city government to join us in this effort to provide true shelter for all San Franciscans during this public health crisis.”

Since the initial donation, a local tech company has given $5,000 and three area United Methodist Tongan churches — Laurel, Shoreview and San Bruno — have come together and given $2,500.

The California-Pacific Conference just announced it is joining with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to provide 5,000 welcome kits over the next several months.

Churches in the North, East and West districts will be organizers for their congregations. Churches are also asked to look into their food pantries to see if any items can be donated.

The kits will include notes of encouragement, toiletries, a sturdy bag like a tote or drawstring backpack, journals, snacks and socks, among other items.

One well-known place to go for help in Detroit is Cass Community Social Services.

The Rev. Faith Fowler, the United Methodist elder who is director of the service agency, said they have had to close down all non-essential operations and sent 40 related staff persons home. However, the rotating shelter and warming center have both been extended through the end of May.

“We have had 100 people in the Thomasson Building, 100 at Scott and 100 more in apartment buildings each night. We anticipate that the numbers will continue to climb,” Fowler wrote in a letter on the website.

“We have been working feverishly to assist people who have recently lost their jobs in addition to those we normally serve. If you know of someone needing food, we will bring groceries to their front porch for free,” Fowler said.

At First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Fellowship Breakfasts for the homeless community on Sunday mornings ended in March.

“It was a very sad day, but we simply couldn't observe the physical distancing and sanitation measures that were needed,” said the Rev. Elizabeth McVicker. The church members were also concerned about exposing participants to the virus.

Larry Hjalmarson, one of the core members of the breakfast team, said he is at the church often working on the grounds and has had some conversations with people who used to come to the Sunday gatherings. Many comment they miss the food, but miss the fellowship even more.

“We never anticipated how important the ‘fellowship’ part of the Fellowship Breakfast would become,” Hjalmarson said. “We created a community. We look forward to beginning again.” 

Gilbert is a news writer for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.