[Diocese of Los Angeles] Steve usually arrives around 6 a.m. on Saturdays at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Long Beach, California. He showers, changes into clean clothes, eats and helps others to do the same.
At the end of what can be exhausting but satisfying long days – the church shower ministry serves around 100 people on average on a weekend – he pitches his tent outside the church doors and takes a seat. for the evening.
“The first day I walked through these doors, I received this warm welcome,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “They didn’t judge me. They just helped me feed, dress and shower. I have been back almost every Saturday since.
St. Luke’s is one of several Los Angeles area congregations with homeless shower ministries. Others have included St. James in-the-City in Los Angeles and All Saints Church in Highland Park, in collaboration with Shower of Hope, which offers more than 2,000 free showers each month in mobile vans in more than 20 locations. across the county.
Margaret Ecker, shower ministry coordinator at St. James in-the-City Church, said she had seen the number triple in recent months from around 15 per week to 45.
Clothing and food are usually provided with the showers. Since the coronavirus pandemic, a hot meal for shower patrons has been replaced with lunch bags, she said.
Dan Donohue, 25, has been an enthusiastic St. James volunteer. “I wanted to get involved,” Donohue said. “I think the ability to cleanse is a basic human right. The simplicity of the idea is so nice. There are many difficulties for people who do not have access to basic needs like showering. This way it is very simply solved by having portable showers.
The Studio City resident said he wanted people to know “it is high time this stuff was fixed. It is important for people to realize that these basic needs are not being met for all members of society. The sooner we come together and agree that there are huge systemic issues that go unresolved, the sooner we as a society will rise. “
The homeless, who make up most of the shower guests, “are just homeless people,” Donohue said. “They are our neighbors and we have to treat them as if they are our neighbors. And we shouldn’t treat them like they’re something else.
In 2019, there were approximately 36,000 homeless in the city of Los Angeles and nearly 59,000 in Los Angeles County.
Gail Mutke has been a member of St. Luke for 48 years and coordinates the shower ministry. She is a team leader on Saturday and said the pandemic may have forced logistical changes, but the hospitality and care from the ministry remained.
The church has a 30-year history of providing showers for Long Beach’s homeless population, currently estimated at around 1,800 people, many in the downtown area.
Recently, St. Luke’s received a $ 10,000 grant to support the Long Beach Community Foundation’s COVID Emergency Fund ministry, according to Rev. Jane Gould, rector.
The grant was used to buy two new water heaters because “each week the hot water was turned off for half an hour and 45 minutes. If it was your bad luck with the toss, if it was your time and the water was cold – well, if you’re talking about giving human dignity, you have to at least be able to guarantee hot water ” , Gould said.
Shower guests start lining up early on Saturday mornings. The doors of the church open around 8 a.m. Volunteers distribute masks, if needed, and chairs are placed in the parking lot six feet away to encourage social distancing.
Each guest receives tickets for a bag meal and shower. “We call them first for clothes. Then they take their turn in the showers and they can go get food whenever they want, ”Gould said. Women are directed to one part of the campus and men to another for their showers. Food and clothing are provided by local partner churches.
Kevin Wood, 42, is the administrator of St. Gregory Church in Long Beach, one of the shower ministry’s many partner churches. He and other volunteers make about 130 of the lunch bags – usually a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, fruit, chips, cookies, water, and a plastic spoon, “because we’re going. also serve hot soup the next day “.
“St. Luke’s is on the front line for those who come for food,” said Wood. “When I heard they needed help, it made me want to help. Giving everything back to the community is always the best thing we can do. It makes you realize how blessed you are and that you need to give back in any way you can.
“It’s also a reminder that some people are less fortunate, need help and are just as important as us.”
After Long Beach resident Abner Rios, 27, was put on leave from his customer service position, he also began volunteering at the ministry, handing out hygiene kits, outfitted with razors, toothpaste. , toothbrushes and other personal care items.
“I felt I needed to help in any way I could,” Rios said. “I thought it was one of the best ways to use my free time.”
The ministry made such an impression, he said, that every time he returns to work, he wants to continue volunteering because “I got to know people by name, to do the job. conversation and seeing them for who they are – regularly, every day people who are in a difficult situation.
“Just come here and see the faces and know that this church has something so essential for people to do – it feels so good.”
Nick Carbajal, 22, a recent graduate of California State University at Long Beach, said volunteering at the ministry inspired him to become a member of St. Luke’s.
“The Episcopal Church offered me a place where my spirituality could be more fully developed into a more mature and fleshed out spirituality,” he said. “I don’t think homelessness is in the kingdom of God, at the end of the day.
“Being with the guests, hearing their stories and what they need to do to survive makes me realize that homelessness shouldn’t be a thing in the first place,” he said. “We’re trying to build a new world and make sure they have these services and hopefully put a new system in place.”
Gould agreed. “I would rather transform society so that St. Luke never had to do shower ministries again,” she said. But for now, she hopes to receive a grant to renovate a women’s shower space to accommodate additional booths. “Originally, the program was only for men. Then there was a time for men and a time for women, and then again a time for men. Then we installed a shower and a female toilet and now we have to renovate and restructure them.
She noted that there are limits to their agenda: “We are changing lives, not systems,” she said.
But, she added, “it behooves us to serve them and working with our political leaders to find solutions to homelessness and how to approach homelessness with those who suffer from drug addiction or emotional disturbances.
Like Mutke, Mike Allen is also a Saturday crew chief. St. Luke’s guests range from those with behavioral health issues to “someone who just lost their job,” he said. “Their life changed and they found themselves on the streets. “
For example, “a young man is a student at Long Beach Community College. His resources will pay for the school. He’s young, able-bodied, and it’s easier to sleep outside, surf the couch, and do whatever he can to try and pay for his education.
Allen, a detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said it was inspiring to see young people volunteering to help the community, especially since traditionally many volunteers are over 60 and are therefore unable to help during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Allen said St. Luke’s ministry “is a cool community effort. Unfortunately, the surrounding community tends to be frightened by this population, and with the onset of the pandemic, these fears have grown.
“If we could just get more people in the community to volunteer or stay a little while, a lot of those fears could be allayed,” Allen said. “If they could put aside their prejudices and experience this ministry as a volunteer, it would greatly lessen their fears. “
Increasingly, the guests themselves, like Steve, are also volunteering, he said. “Joy is absolutely for me to be a part of this and I earn more than I give,” he added.
Steve said sleeping near the church made him feel good. He moved from Chicago to Southern California 15 years ago in search of a sister he was separated from. He never found her. He didn’t know anyone and had nowhere to go.
“People told me there was a church on Seventh and Atlantic and they would provide you with food, a shower and clothes – basically what I was looking for,” recalls Steve. “It pretty much became my original church. Then I got down to helping the homeless and although I’m still homeless I think it’s a way to give back.
“Like most homeless people, I am not looking for a handout, but a helping hand.”
This story was originally published by The Episcopal News in the Diocese of Los Angeles.