The Story of Stuff: DVDs and Rotten Oranges

In our first two seasons, when we were still rotating among our partner congregations’ buildings, we developed a serious stuff issue. Knowing virtually nothing about homelessness when I started, this was a problem I hadn’t anticipated. I mean, how much stuff could people with no place to put it actually have?!

The answer is A LOT. And constantly collecting more. One of the trauma responses to losing your home, often repeatedly, is a tighter attachment to the stuff you do have. Almost weekly when the shelter is in season, we have conflicts with guests over their stuff: how to store it, who can move it, and how much they can actually have on hand in the shelter.

The guest who taught me the most in those early seasons about the complicated relationships our people have with their stuff was J. If you think of a stereotypical homeless man, the picture you conjure up would be very close to his. A middle-aged man with matted hair and powerful body odor, a military vet with PTSD and a drinking problem, J wore layer over layer of clothing. He always topped it off with a long brown trench coat, full of inner and outer pockets.

Wherever J went he collected more stuff, filling the pockets of his clothing like a chipmunk preparing for a long winter. What he couldn’t fit in his pockets, he put in plastic grocery bags, often pulled from his pockets. Day after day, J would come into shelter larger than the day before, his form literally growing in front of us as he packed his collected items around his body.

For safety reasons, we do nightly bag checks when people come into shelter, and our staff and volunteers would fight over who DIDN’T have to do J’s check each night. We don’t do searches of guests’ bodies, thankfully, or we would’ve need an extra staff person just for J. Each night, our intake team would comb through his bags to find half-rotten food clearly pulled from dumpsters, an assortment of brochures and free pens from non-profits around town, and always a DVD or two to add to the collection under his cot.

At the end of each week, when it was time to pack up the cots and bedding to move to the next hosting congregation, J would inevitably have collected more than he could physically carry, no matter how many pockets or bags he had. He would ask if we could hold onto it at that church just for a few days until he could sort it and take what he needed. We were less hardened in saying no in those days, so often church volunteers or pastors (myself and Erica included) would agree.

A week or two later, after repeated asks to come back for his stuff, someone would notice the smell, coming from whatever closet or corner his pile occupied, and we would get a call. The first few times this happened, we would dutifully go to pick up his belongings and return them to him wherever we found him sleeping. When we could not find him, or the hosting church flatly refused to have anymore of his stuff in their building, Erica or I would take his things to a storage space in our churches, thinking we’d still convince him to come back and sort it.

Fast forward to the end of our second season, after the shelter had closed in April, and staff at both our churches were pushing for those storage spaces to be emptied out. Most of what was left behind belonged to people who had disappeared, so we sorted and donated and threw things away. Then there was J’s stuff. I had repeatedly reminded him that we couldn’t keep holding his stuff and told him when I would be there to help him sort and carry it, but he never came.

Feeling still an obligation to his dignity, and knowing he’d ask for what belonged to him someday, I opened the multitude of bags in his pile, thinking I’d sort at least the DVDs out from among the trash. The smell and the ooze and the bugs that greeted me when I opened the bags is an experience I will never forget. It became clear that everything needed to go to the dumpster if I wanted to keep my breakfast inside my body. Even as I held my breath and filled giant trash bags, I knew the trust that I’d gained of his was about to be broken when I put everything in the alley dumpster.

J has been housed, by a miracle worked between Jesus and his county social worker, for over three years now. He still asks both Erica and I for his DVDs. He’s stopped being angry when we tell him that we had to get rid of them though. And in fact, he stopped into Shelter Church for dinner a couple weeks ago, and Erica was treated to a big stinky hug and a smile that still breaks our hearts wide open.

The story of stuff in our shelter is more complicated that we will ever know for most of our guests, and setting boundaries around it continues to be the hardest part of the job. But we also know more certainly as each season passes that the relationships we build with our guests transcend even their most precious belongings. We give them a place to BELONG, even if we have to throw their stuff away.

ALL are welcome

Jolly, Princess, Bailey, Tala- these are the names of some of my favorite congregants.  Upon meeting them, you might be a bit surprised by their appearance, they are a little jumpy and are known to eat food that has fallen on the ground.   They are the dogs and cats of shelter church and they are beloved.  

Tala the cat was our first four-legged member.  Her people were experiencing homelessness, but she was their beloved cat and they were not going to be without her.  She attended our very first service.  She rode around in style- her cat carrier attached to a stroller, with her litter box neatly tucked in the basket underneath the stroller.  A  big orange and white cat with the softest fur- she charmed many a two legged church member and they would bring her little cans of food and sneak her treats.  When she inevitably would run away from her people- exploring a moment of freedom- and get lost, we would all search for her and watch the lost pet listings.  We had to post bail for her a couple of times to spring her from the pound.  As our fledgling congregation worked to figure out who we were and how we would be in community together, it was obvious that animals were an integral part of our family.  

Jolly and Princess, both some kind of chihuahua mix, are weekly attenders.  Princess lives up to her name and often comes to church in fancy outfits.  She serves as a great greeter- meeting people, giving them a welcome sniff.  When church moved from the parking lot to the fellowship hall for the winter, Princess sported adorable tiny diapers so she wouldn’t “christen” the church carpet.   When Jolly first joined us, she was so scared and timid.  She had recently been rescued by her person and she was afraid of everything.  She would snuggle, huddled in her person’s arms through the service.  She didn’t want to be approached, but carefully watched all that was going on.  One night, Jolly escaped while on a walk.  Her person was devastated.  Our little church community helped hang fliers and search and we prayed fervently for her return.  Days became weeks and we refused to lose hope that Jolly would be found and she was!  We celebrated the power of prayer, the thought of not losing hope, and the gifts of coming home.  

Bailey is a newer addition; a fluffy, energetic puppy that her person got shortly after her son died of cancer.  As a pastor, I was a little leary of our member taking on the care of a dog, especially a puppy,  but she assured us that Bailey was going to give her a reason to get up and out of bed in the morning and would provide that unconditional love that pets have an amazing way of doing.  She was right.  Bailey is a gift.  She is still 100% puppy and often provides some comic relief during the service, but she also extends love to anyone who will greet her. 

I am not sure why more churches don’t allow dogs and cats in the doors.  They serve as a beautiful reminder of unconditional love, the wonder of God’s creation, and the need to give and receive love.  I guess the same could be said for some of our two leggers, not always welcomed in other church settings, but always a reminder of God’s love.  All are truly welcome at shelter church. – Pastor Erica

Goodbyes are Hard

In this work, we say a lot of goodbyes.  Goodbyes wrapped in mystery or confusion.  Goodbyes that were full of celebration and the promise of new things to come.   See you later, quick hug goodbyes and don’t let the door hit you in the ass goodbyes.  Each one leaves a mark on our hearts, sometimes sparkly and sometimes bruised, but every so often a goodbye leaves us gutted. 

His name was Doug.  He showed up about a month before the season began in 2021 with his little dog Paco.  He had an infectious smile that quickly drew you in.  At first he was a little wary of our quick welcome and hospitality, but soon Doug and Paco became a fixture every morning at the breakfast ministry where we did outreach.  He was working to start fresh.  He was fairly new to homelessness and had lived a full and fairly “normal” life before things took a turn and he found himself without a place to live and only Paco by his side.  

Over the course of the season, he became one of our favorites.  He was so thankful for a place to be (Paco was being fostered by a volunteer and they met several times a week) and his positive attitude rubbed off on all the guys around him.  We all celebrated when he got a place to live just a few blocks from the shelter.  We told him not to be a stranger and to stop by for a visit.  He promised he would and he stayed true to his word, popping by on his walks with Paco to say hi and to catch up.  His apartment became an extension of the room he had in the shelter and several of his shelter roommates would spend their days there playing video games and watching movies.  

In June of that same year, I got a call from the hospital chaplain.  Doug was in the emergency room and the prognosis wasn’t good.  I was listed as his emergency contact.  He told them, “call pastor Erica.”  I was driving back from a family vacation in Colorado.  I was too far away to be of much help, but promised I would try to figure out who could take the dog and I would keep tabs on how he was doing.  He was transferred to Mayo in Rochester and we lost him.  No one was sure where he had gone and no one would release any information to us.  It was so frustrating.  Eventually, he called.  He was going into a nursing rehab facility to build up his strength,  but he would be local and could we bring his dog by?   

I walked into his room and hardly recognized the shell of a man he had become.  He looked drawn and pale and the eyes that used to sparkle were dim.  At the same time,his social worker called us to say he was going to lose his apartment because while he was gone, some local drug dealers had started operating out of his apartment and it was trashed.   He could keep it IF it could get cleaned up and the locks were changed.  Because sometimes there is no one else, we went to clean the apartment.  Suffice it to say, we learned a lot about drug paraphernalia that afternoon.  We loaded bags of trash, cleaned out all the residual drug items, and reclaimed the space for Doug and Paco. 

Doug eventually made a solid recovery and was able to return to his apartment.  We picked him up outside the nursing home, stopping for groceries before taking him home and reuniting him with Paco.  We all had tears in our eyes as he settled finally at home.  From that time on, we kept tabs on Doug, checking in occasionally, keeping track of  his health.  Then the  21/22 shelter season started with COVID outbreaks, staffing shortages, and an overflowing shelter.  As I took a brisk walk outside one afternoon, I glanced over at Doug’s apartment building and thought, I should really check in on him.  Not more than a few days later, his social worker called to say he was heading to the hospital and it didn’t look good.  He had COVID and was having heart problems.  His next call was to tell me that Doug had died.  I sobbed at my desk- for Doug, for Paco, and for the fact that he died alone.  

Over the course of the next many weeks, word of his death spread among our community.  There was no obituary, no funeral or memorial service. We celebrated him in little moments together- every single person wanting to make sure Paco was being cared for.   When we journey with people who are homeless, when their lives end, often families don’t know that we have walked with their loved one on part of their journey; that they are a part of our strange and beautiful family as well.  So we mourn and say goodbye in our own special ways- with a picture in the office, a whispered promise to figure out how to have dogs with their people in shelter,  and holding close the lessons they taught us, shaping our hearts for the work we will continue to do and the goodbyes yet to come. -Pr. Erica

The Story of Stuff: (C)remains

This is the first in a series of shelter stories, based on the stuff that gets left behind, guest belongings that sometimes remain unclaimed, and sometimes draw guests back in ways and with stories we couldn’t predict.

She danced, child-like and joyful, not quite present to the world, but fully in her body. Skipping from one parking barrier to the next, like a gymnast on a balance beam, laughing as she went, R couldn’t help but move. Mostly away from us, as we tried to assess her and figure out how to help. 

She had a son, who was either in Iowa or Nebraska, with his father, who didn’t have custody and had fled across state lines knowing it would be harder to enforce legal documents that way. R had a car, but it wasn’t working, and was impounded, so we finally decided to rent her a car for a week so she could go find her son and return with him to the shelter. The week came and went, and though she answered our phone calls, there was no clear answer on where she was or what she was doing. When she finally returned the rental car, the agent told us she’d gone thousands of miles in that week to who knows where, and there was no child in tow.

She’s seen him briefly and spoken to the father, but he had evaded her requests for visits and conversation and law enforcement had refused to help. She danced less when she returned, her mind wandering farther and farther from her body, sometimes all the way down the street during smoke break, so staff had to holler her back inside. Her car got fixed, and she seemed to be working with a lawyer on the child custody issue, but we couldn’t get a full answer out of her.

Then one morning, after performing her regular parking lot gymnastics routine at Breakfast Church, she disappeared.

Camera footage showed her in the company of another shelter guest we knew to be dangerous, and we prayed and worried over her safety. When the shelter closed for the season, she was still missing, and we began to assume the worst. We reached out to police contacts with her license plate info, hoping she’d ended up in jail somewhere, a better option than a found body. We did a cursory search of her belongings hoping to find an emergency contact, or her lawyer’s number, but turned up only her personal documents and a box containing her mother’s ashes. 

The cremains were the part that haunted our staff, because no one leaves such a thing behind if they are in their right mind. Her disappearance worried our staff enough that they spent overnight hours combing the internet for clues. Finally, her name turned up on a jail roster in Omaha, and we let out our collective breath, relieved that she was alive, even if that was all we knew.

A month later, a doctor called from a mental health facility in Omaha, asking if we knew a woman named R. “She’s had a mental break, and she doesn’t know her last name or anything about herself. All she could tell us was that she’d come from Connections Shelter. I found this number on your website.”

With R’s permission, we pulled her bagged belongings from the storage closet we call the Hidey Hole and began to uncover her identity for the doctor. With that information, the doctor helped R come back into her right mind and found medication that would keep her there. She came back to Mankato and claimed her belongings, reunited at last with her ashen mother. She located her son and tried to reunite with his father, hoping at least to co-parent and share custody.

Unsuccessful, R returned to the shelter months later, because out of all the places she’d been, ours was the one she knew would be safe. She’d remembered that when she literally couldn’t remember her own name, and she remembered it when she was fleeing the abuse and emotional manipulation of her child’s father. And when she needed it, her stuff told us the story of her life, enabling us to help her piece herself back together and try again. 

R doesn’t dance anymore, at least not in that eerie child-like way, but instead stands up for herself and her fellow shelter guests, demanding apologies from those who mistreat them. She is working, and working toward housing, after which she can hopefully gain partial custody of her son. And this time, when she left shelter, the only things that remains is her story of a safe haven helping to knit a broken mind back together. 

Jesus Has Already Done It

It was a Tuesday morning before our monthly board meeting, and I’d arrived at Connections Shelter to find that one of our families had again used abusive language toward staff, the fifth time in as many days. They had been warned that they had only one more chance, but I really didn’t want to be the one to say they were losing their shelter and would have to go back to sleeping in their car while they looked for an apartment. While I waited for calls back from the school social worker and staff members who’d borne the brunt of their insults, I looked at the staffing schedule and realized that we were once again short a weekend overnight person, and the person we’d hired had sent an email saying she couldn’t start until the next weekend.

Again, a flurry of texts and calls went out to see who would cover, and I turned to the financial reports for our board meeting, so could compare to where we were last year. The result piled more discouragement on: $12,000 behind in our giving compared to the previous year. And just as I finished lamenting this with my colleague, Pastor Erica, my phone rang.

“Your son just threw up at school. You’ve got to come pick him up.”

Breathing out a tear-filled sigh, I said to Pastor Erica, “I’m going to get him settled in at home and then I’ll be back so we can figure out how to face this garbage pile.”

All the way to the middle school, I prayed. As I tucked my son in his bed with water and his iPad, I prayed. As I waited in the Arby’s drive through, I prayed. “Jesus, we just can’t.  It’s too much. You’ve got to fix it.”

Armed with curly fries and caffeinated beverages, I walk back into our shelter office ready to battle our circumstances. But before we could even start eating to fuel up, the phone rang. 

“We got an apartment!” Our beloved and challenging family crowed. “And we are coming to the shelter to get our stuff because we can move in today!” It was the middle of the month, and they were using rental assistance, so those of you who know public housing know how impossible this scenario should’ve been. Erica set down the phone and we just stared at each other open-mouthed. Thank you, Jesus.

While we were still awestruck at this housing miracle, my phone buzzed. It was a text from our newly hired staff person: “I can actually start this weekend. Can I come in for training tomorrow?” Absolutely. Yes please. Again, thank you Jesus.

With two problems solved, and my son still doing fine in his bed at home, I said, “Okay, let’s check the mail and see if maybe we can get a few more checks to make our financial picture look less bleak”. When I got downstairs to the mailbox, it was jammed so full it took pulling and wiggling to get the whole pile out.

Every single envelope contained a check. 

As I opened each one, I added the number on its check to the calculator on my phone. When I was done, I just held it up for Erica to see, unable to speak. $12,200. Just a little more than exactly how much we’d been behind that morning.

As we laughed and cried and breathed a bit of new life in, we realized that every one of these miracles that had come to us within an hour had been in the works for days previous. Before we’d ever prayed those desperate prayers, Jesus was at work on what only he knew we’d need. While we were still thinking maybe we had this all together, Jesus was putting together a rescue plan that would be ready when everything fell apart.

“Ok, Jesus” we prayed with laughter, “we get it. You’ve already got this. You’ve already done it. We will try to trust you better tomorrow.”

In the Still of the Night

I happen to be working the overnight shift at the shelter tonight.  It’s not something I usually do as one of the pastors, but this season, with a pandemic and short staffing- we do what we need to, to keep the doors open.  

I am used to different rhythms in this space.  The mornings where the sun streams in the stained glass windows in the office and the silence is broken by the doorbell chimes and the ringing of the phone.  We bounce between big dreams and the minute details of daily shelter life, talking, laughing, occasionally crying and often swearing.  The day moves quickly and our lists seem to grow instead of shrink.

 In the evenings, the space is alive with noise and chaos.  Conversations, food, volunteers, raised voices, laughter, and doors slamming shut on their hinges.  Staff and volunteers hustle down the halls, meeting one need and then the next.  On good nights, the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.  On harder nights there is tension and a sense of caution.  The evening moves along quickly- there isn’t ever time to stop and reflect. 

At 2:30 am in the shelter, the pace is uniquely its own.  The halls are quiet.  The automatic lights  all turn off as there is no one there to trigger their sensors.  Every so often the quiet is interrupted with the soft click of a door closing and someone will amble their way to the bathroom or stop to check out what remains on the snack table.  There is a peace in this space that is palpable and tonight, in all the chaos of this season, it reminds me of one of the reasons we do what we do.  

As I look at the “bed board” with the names of those sleeping in each room, I pray. I pray for the  restoration that sleep can bring.  I give thanks that each of them has found this place, this respite, this quiet.  I pray for the things that keep them up at night and the things that bring them peace.  I pray for this sense of stillness and middle of the night calm to gentle their trauma, heal their pain, restore their hope.   I pray for the work of this place.  I pray for our stamina and our patience as we ride out our most difficult season yet.  The deepest part of the night is truly holy…. -Pastor Erica

Sometimes, it doesn’t work

We preach dignity. We stake our deep belief on the fact that Jesus names and claims every one of us a beloved child of God. We live out our call to love our neighbor as ourselves in a million big and little ways day in and day out in our work. Most of the time, we see fruit. We see the beginnings of healing and trust and growth. These are the stories that are easy to share. The stories that make this work make sense. The stories that fuel my passion. But sometimes, sometimes the brokenness is so deep and so fierce that no amount of seeing or empathizing or listening will scratch the surface. These are the times when this work brings me to my knees and wracks my body with deep sobs because I know that what I have to offer will never be enough.

Oppressive systems have taken the very spirit from these beloveds. Poverty, mental illness, physical pain, racism, homophobia, addiction, childhood trauma- all of it tossed in a cauldron and held to the fire of daily life. It simmers and stews and melds together and just like a pot that begins to boil over, all that brokenness spills over and burns those in its path. If only I were made of teflon, so the brokenness would slide off rather than stick and burn. But it does stick and the burns leave a mark.

There is no pretty way to tell these stories, to see the plus side, to find the positive. We can hold the space, we can continue to try, we can love, we can pray- but sometimes the most loving thing we can do is say no. And create boundaries and make choices that feel counter intuitive to what we believe, but that remind us that sometimes the mending isn’t ours to do. – Pastor Erica

I See You

One of the very first opportunities we get to sit down with people is during intake at the shelter. Ideally, we are able to do this before everyone comes in for the night. It is less rushed and we are able to take our time and hold space for whatever our guest needs in that moment. It doesn’t always work this way- often we will have several people show up at the door when we open and then they quickly get swept up into the organized chaos of the first hour or two of the shelter night. Regardless of how or when intake happens, it is often the first place we infuse a dose of dignity dna- and if we do it right, it sets the tone for the rest of a guests stay with us.

Happily accepting my offer of a cold gatorade, our first intake of the season sat warily across from me at the small table in the pastoral care office. He wore a long trench coat and his face held lines of weariness peeking out from a scruffy beard. I was immediately drawn to his eyes- which shined with kindness on first glance, but with a closer look held deep pain and trauma. As I gathered the necessary paperwork, I asked him if he was from the area. “I came from the west coast. I have a friend here and she told me this is a good community to get a new start in. I was hoping to stay with her. That didn’t work out so here I am. I have been homeless for more years than I care to count.”

It was what I had seen behind the kindness in his eyes- long years of lived experience on the margins. We began to go through the paperwork. We intentionally ask for the bare minimum of information; just enough to know how to contact them, who we can call in an emergency, and if there are medical issues we should be aware of. As we began to talk about case management and the help we as the pastors could provide I looked up and saw a tear slowly making it’s way through the stubble on his cheek. “Do you need a minute?” I asked. “No,” he said, “this is just the first time anyone has really cared about what I want and is willing to help me get there with no strings attached.” “It’s probably a little overwhelming” I said. “We will just take things one step at a time, but know that this can be your home for now, a place to rest, to reset, a safe space.” More tears tracked down his cheek. He quickly swiped them away . “Thanks. It’s just nice to finally be seen.”

To be seen. It is a basic human right and one so many of us take for granted. For those that we walk with, to be seen, to be called by name, to be treated just like anyone else- slowly begins to weave a thread of dignity back into a story that all too often is frayed at both ends. And we do that weaving with great intention- knowing each person needs a slightly different thread and each tapestry tells it’s own story. – Pastor Erica

Dignity DNA

Dignity. Webster defines it as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect”. Dignity is a basic human right and it lies at the very core of who we are as Parking Lot Pastors. The very first tattoo I ever got was the word beloved. It is a reminder to me that I am a beloved child of God and equally important it is a reminder that all who I encounter carry the divine with in them as named and claimed children of God. Beyond their choices, their living situations, their appearance, their mental illness, their addiction, they are a living breathing testament to God’s creation. So much of our work involves reminding people of this truth, of seeing them for who they are, and treating them with dignity.

On a cool. cloudy morning last week, we brewed an airpot full of coffee and headed out to do some street outreach. There were a few of our friends that we had not seen for awhile and we wanted to check in. We hadn’t even gotten a block away from the shelter when we spotted her sitting on the bench at the little town square park. We hadn’t seen her in weeks and the rumors had been flying about where she was and how she was doing. Her social worker had reached out to us wondering if we had seen her during outreach. We quickly parked the car and grabbed the coffee pot, an insulated cup and cream and sugar. She looked rough. Her eyes were gaunt and her clothes hung off her tiny frame. She looked at us wearily and gave a guarded hello. “Do you want some coffee?” we asked? “I suppose” she said. We assured her that we just wanted to check in on her and make sure she was okay. For the next several minutes she caught us up on her life. Her addiction to meth continued to encompass her life with a steal grip that seemed impossible to break. She told us stories of how she was constantly seen as a problem, as less then, as her addiction by law enforcement, crisis care providers and people she encountered on the street. “I’m human, ya know?” We know. We see you. We see how addiction speaks to you with a narrative that you are not enough, how deep trauma informs your every move. Yes, you are human, yes you deserve dignity, you are more than your trauma, your addiction, your life on the street. You are beloved. We try to convey all of this in a cup of hot coffee and a willingness to listen. After a little bit, she ready to be left alone to drink her coffee. We remind her that anytime she needs us we are there for her with no agenda other than to see her and to listen. Then it’s back in the car, coffee pot in hand. Looking for another lost friend.