Imagine a sleeping bag holding the solutions to homelessness. Imagine a sleeping bag providing answers to an ancient problem haunting human societies predating Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and every other social reformer believed heaven sent. Imagine finding blueprints for constructing more equitable systems while transforming individual lives and evolving societal care. Now, imagine being at an advisory council meeting for Church at the Park when that sleeping bag appears.
The State of Oregon has a homelessness crisis. According to the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, 14,655 Oregonians are living without shelter. Now add to that the cold snaps, heatwaves and pandemics along with all the other traumas associated with poverty and sleeping on the ground, in doorways, parks, rural rest areas and in broken-window cars with freezing limbs and hungry growling stomachs. It’s reported that in the heart of the state’s own Capital city of Salem there are at least 1,188 people besieged by this crisis. The actual numbers are much higher due to families living in vehicles along rural roads and other less visible places missed in counting efforts.
In 2007, a group of concerned action-oriented community members formed Church at the Park—a faith based organization open to all—and began providing potluck style meals to the homeless in Cascades Gateway Park during a time when more than a hundred campers were reportedly there. The Church’s mission back then was to “do more than provide food, but to sit and eat with them. To break bread,” according DJ Vincent, who has been the directing pastor of Church at the Park since its inception.
Under a philosophy inspired by a belief that faith only matters to the extent that it’s embodied, the church under Vincent’s leadership has grown from providing weekly meals to now offering micro-shelter housing for the most vulnerable, along with safe vehicle parking, food boxes, case management, peer support, safe and sanitary resource centers, pastoral services and multiple other services ranging from temporary shelter to long term housing. While once solely a volunteer-led effort, the church has since grown to 90 staff, many of who were once homeless and some who still are. From park potlucks to operating two micro shelter sites and one resource center, Church at the Park has created a model of community development that if scaled up could eliminate homelessness in Salem, in Oregon, America and elsewhere.
Today, back at the advisory council, another step has been made in scaling up solutions.
“The big news tonight is the city says we can provide more services” says Sam Dompier, the Church’s housing and chief development officer chairing the meeting over Zoom, “The city approved all three sites.” She’s talking about approval to develop micro-shelter communities on Turner Road, Front and Center Streets. Alongside city council and various stakeholders the church has been working on this project over a year after Salem declared a housing emergency. In addition to housing, these sites have 24-hour surveillance and security to provide safety to the residents and assurance to surrounding neighbors.
“9 out of 10 neighbor feedback is positive” DJ says with a smile that clearly demonstrates his appreciation. Ten minutes at any executive team meeting reveals a high prioritizing of public education and addressing community member concerns. It’s also quickly clear that a lot of the work necessary in developing micro-shelter communities is contending with popular misperceptions. Whether it’s the wrong idea that everybody who is homeless is a lazy junkie or the de-compassioning idea that helping is enabling, “these lenses fog people’s ability to see the human beyond.” says DJ. At the center of the Church’s work is an intentional recognition for human beings expressed through relational care for houseless guest and staff alike.
“This place is a refuge for staff as well,” says one employee interviewed at the resource center with her sentiments echoed in interviews across the organization.
“The church embodies staff care,” says Sam after sharing an extensive social-service career history before declaring the church as the most people caring. It’s not just staff that value the people-centered spirit. “These are good people. They care.” reports Critter whose been sleeping in a tent for 3 years.
From the unhoused to church leadership and even the recently paroled, the emphasis on human relationship is an embodied value that and emphasizes relationships with currently housed Salem citizens as it does the unhoused. One might expect the advisory meeting to start with logistics of construction, permits, budgets, planning community listening sessions and more. Instead, it started with a seemingly trivial matter.
“I received an email from a doctor going to volunteer in Kenya and he wants to donate his high-quality sleeping bag to the homeless. How do we do that?” asks Sam Skillern, the executive director of the Salem Leadership Foundation and Church at the Park advisor board member.
“A sleeping bag?” asks the meeting chair; clearly they are not the only one who thought they had misheard. “Ok, forward me the information and we will get it out.”
Steven Barnett, formerly unemployed and houseless, was hired to process and distribute community donations “Sleeping bags and tents are our most requested items” Steve will later say when asked about greatest needs.
The meeting continued as expected with details related to construction rollout, safety protocols, permitting, funding and more. However, in the mash of numbers and resource coordination the symbolic significance of the sleeping bag isn’t immediately apparent in the thick of the practical planning necessary to move mountains within city regulations. But to an outside observer, a closer examination reveals the sleeping bag as metaphor revealing elements necessary to demonstrate the effectiveness of the church’s model. Perhaps for the traditional writer the advisory board meeting story would’ve been more concrete agenda items filled with data, yet, for me the story is in the bag.
For the next month I sought to track down that particular sleeping bag since it’s story offers a perfect arch highlighting numerous contextual complexities for those experiencing homelessness and those working to eradicate it. Where tracing the altruistic act of a concerned citizen and the diligence of advisory board members just as concerned with tiny matters as they are big within an organization specializing in building healing community among the fringes would have also enabled me to write about the City of Salem’s determination to resolve a problem as old as human societies. In that discussion it could be explained how the histories of Houston, Salt Lake, Grand Rapids and others caution us against the dangers of letting “housing first” organizations go under-funded as the cost of housing continues to increase. More importantly, amid what can appear an overwhelming problem reaching biblical proportion the bag’s arrival demonstrates how even a single act of compassion can change another’s experience of the world.
"It’s been so freaking cold lately, with all the rain and stuff,” says Leah, a trans-woman who’s been experiencing homelessness for nearly 9-years after her parents could no longer afford their California home. “I thought I was going to go insane” she continues outside the Day Resource Center on Turner Road. Where Kurt, an onsite case manager, gave Leah a bright red sleeping before arranging to have her taken to urgent care for a busted and infected head.
“On a 1-10 scale a good bag makes a 7 difference” said Leah while preparing for medical attention. Her bright red sleeping bag wasn’t the one I spent a month looking for but held the same message about the ability of a little to do a lot—when it’s done with care.
Evident even in this bag is a glimpse of a scalable response capable of shifting paradigms. With the number of supplies donated and distributed it proved impossible to track down a particular donation, yet, I can’t help wondering if the person using it ponders the metaphor they are wrapped in. Do they marvel the tiny warmth that reached them from a fellow unknown human being sharing locally. Do they ponder the ever underfunded existence of an entire group of people organized to care for people on the ground and building safe and sanitary shelters so they can stabilize enough to heal and grow.
I wonder if they ponder the obstacles Church at the Park hurdles daily to serve the most vulnerable while creating real life solutions inspired by heavenly causes. Do they contemplate zoning restrictions and city managers diligently searching for suitable sites and, giant budget needs for the care they receive? Are they considering who provides and cares for the care providers helping them?
Perhaps, they're simply too cold to focus on anything beyond surviving the night’s wind and rain without being robbed, beaten, or displaced from the ground where they live in tents. The field of psychology would tell us there is a hierarchy of human needs and if one is struggling with the basics of survival (food, clothing, shelter), the human brain refuses to focus on anything else. Thus, one is left to ponder the folly of those who believe the cold, hungry and suffering can just stand up and create their own fates the same way as the already fed, clothed and housed can.
Whereas one can see the potential of a more loving and kind society in any act of service it was with a great sense of loss that I met with Sam Dompier at Isaac’s Coffee on a Friday to tell her my best story idea, the clearest example of community action, wasn’t going to be a story I could deliver. With the nervous dread of one reporting a failure on the first job assignment, I was secretly relieved when a random stranger interrupted our conversation and told a tale of woe that included displays of missing fingers lost to cold nights while living on the streets.
Homelessness to jail and back to the streets again, he explained while wrapping up brown breadcrumbs in a white napkin, his life “had been hell” but today he said he was happy because he was waiting to meet somebody bringing him a sleeping bag.