Years ago, I remember learning of a movement to create voice mail boxes that could be accessed from pay phones, so that people who are experiencing homelessness will have an “address” that could help with communication, job searches, etc. The lesson of how technology can address this specific social issue made an impression on me.
Technology changes, but the principle stays the same. Those who are homeless can now get an email address, or Facebook, which can be logged into through public computers at the library—a virtual address that can help in so many different ways. And now, with cell phones becoming cheaper and easier to obtain, those who are homeless can have the same ease and access to communication as anyone with a physical address.
The one major challenge will cell phones, of course, is they need to be charged. And that is the big question: if you are homeless, where do you charge your phone? Think for yourself when and how you charge your phone. Perhaps you make a point of plugging it in by your bedside overnight so you wake up with it fully charged. Or you leave it connected at work while you sit at your desk. Or in your car you make sure to have a charger so you can automatically plug it in on your commute to work or running errands. I do all three, so I am never at risk of being completely out of juice.
It’s not having a cell phone that we tend to take for granted these days, it’s having the ability to charge our phones when we need to that we take for granted.
This began to dawn on me when I would see people hang out in Sylvester Park in downtown Olympia, with their phones plugged into the outlets on the lampposts. Or when people would sit in the TBH courtyard and use our exterior outlet (which we have since removed because it was vandalized and damaged.) Or when people would come into the warming center cosponsored by TBH, and one of their main concerns was being able to plug in their phone. This was an eye opener.
I noticed this and many other things over these past four months that the warming center was opened. Today, the warming center, as planned, closed its doors.
Four months ago, my colleague the Rev. Tammy Stampfli from The United Churches and I were invited by our third colleague, the Rev. Amy La Croix of First Christian Church, along with Meg Martin and other staff from the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter, to strategize about a new idea. The winter cold weather and rain were on their way, and Olympia was faced, as it has been in recent years, without a place for homeless people to go during the day. The original ideal of a full service shelter/day center championed a few years ago needed to give way to a permanent overnight shelter only, and while that was a great step forward it still left a gaping hole of needs. Where do go during the day when the shelter closed at 7 a.m.?
We made the agreement that the three faith communities and the IW Shelter would open a temporary winter warming center, to run from the end of November to the end of March. We worked out details—we would open 7 days a week, from 7:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m., and hosts would rotate on a regular schedule. (TBH hosted Mondays and Tuesdays.) The shelter staff would oversee and manage the day center, signing people in, enforcing the rules, etc. Each faith community would provide a coffee/tea service (no meals). And each faith community generated its own protocols about how their building was to be used, the spaces available, the bathrooms designated.
And then, at the end of November, the warming center opened its doors, with TBH being the first host.
It was, in many ways, an experiment to see what was possible. It was very much a “ready, fire, aim” undertaking, as it was hard to know what it would be like happened once it was underway. Shelter staff was amazing, taking tremendous care of the guests and taking care of our building. Many people donated coffee and tea and money to keep the coffee tea service going. We ran cable through the walls to get cable television in the social hall. (We already had service through our bundle deal with Comcast for our phones and internet). Some programs were rescheduled or relocated. The generosity of spirit shown by the TBH membership and leadership has been incredible. And in the end, the warming center went off very well and with little incident.
As the warming center closes, my hope is that it was able to demonstrate a need and a possibility. That the need exists for a day center in Olympia than can help alleviate homelessness and provide access to resources and care, and that such a center is feasible. There are so many factors that underlie homelessness beyond economic—mental illness and substance abuse, to name two—that the ability to concentrate services would be tremendously beneficial. I am heartened by the initiative of Providence along with other organizations to make something like this a reality for our community. It is an initiative I think we should all fully support.
But even beyond these more substantial needs, something simpler and perhaps even more important is required, and that is what we were able to do with the warming center. For looking back over these past four months I see a tremendous success in that we were able to provide the basic human needs that we all desire and require (and sometimes take for granted): a warm, dry place to be to rest, to connect with friends, to have a cup of coffee, to watch TV, to read a book or play a game. And yes, to charge cell phones.