April 11, 2008 Volume 22, Number 02
Places of worship become temporary lodging
Homeless shelte program "energizes" churches
By Frank Stirk | BC Correspondent
Churches are banding together to offer homeless people a place to sleep. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO.COM
COQUITLAM, BC--An innovative program of using churches as temporary homeless shelters is helping give Christians across the Tri-Cities region of Metro Vancouver --Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody-a renewed sense of vision and calling.
"I was just talking with a friend [who] said it was very appropriate that the place where we worshipped only three or four hours previously had homeless people sleeping on the floor," says Doug Monkemeier, the senior pastor of Eagle Ridge Bible Fellowship in Coquitlam.
Eagle Ridge was one of five Tri-City churches that opened their doors to the homeless for several weeks in rotation between December 1 and March 31. All five are hoping to resume the program in the fall and run it until March 2009.
Rob Thiessen, managing director of the Hope For Freedom Society, the faith-based group that runs the program, says it was never intended to be more than a two-year stopgap measure until the Tri-Cities can open a permanent shelter.
The idea of asking churches to stand in the gap was the brainchild of the Tri-Cities Homelessness Task Group, which is made up of local government representatives and service providers. It in turn asked the Hope for Freedom Society to organize it.
"I knew the churches would step up and do the right thing. But what I didn't realize is how this has energized the Church community," says Thiessen.
"I've had 18 churches… that have expressed an interest in somehow helping in the future-many of them saying things like, 'This is something that we should have been doing anyway. This is our mandate to reach out to marginalized people.'"
Some churches even seem willing to at least consider becoming part of a long-term solution. "I don't think that the churches alone could fund a permanent homeless shelter," says Monkemeier. "But I certainly think they would be a participant if there were others who would come to the table."
On the other hand, many residents strongly opposed the idea. Last December, one Coquitlam couple said in a letter to a local newspaper they would move out rather than see their community overrun by "homeless crack addicts and bums."
"There were people saying their house prices would go down by $200,000, teenage pregnancy would go up… if we brought homeless people into these neighbourhoods," says Thiessen. "What they failed to realize is the homeless people are already there."
About 200 people in the Tri-Cities region are homeless, according to a recent Hope For Freedom Society survey.
Linda Rubidoux, a pastor at Northside Foursquare Church in Port Coquitlam, says the church did what it could to address their neighbours' concerns.
"They were afraid that people could just walk up from anywhere to the church at night," she says. "So we put up a stipulation that… they had to come by the van that picked them up at a certain pickup point. They had to be driven to the church."
While the outcry has quieted since last fall, Thiessen says, "There are still some people who are going to be continually opposed to this. That's a given."
Rubidoux, who was once homeless herself, actually welcomes this opposition. The problem, she says, "keeps getting swept underneath the rug so nobody sees it-and if nobody sees it, then it can't be a problem-and this brought it all out in the open."
For the hundreds of church volunteers who laid out the mats, cooked and served the meals and cleaned up afterwards, their time with the homeless was also a revelation.
"It's helped our people to recognize that you can't paint them all with one brush," says Monkemeier, adding they were "pretty well blown away" to learn some of their guests actually had jobs.