On a recent cold winter night, a man showed up at Living Hope Church about 3 a.m., having ridden a bike from Salmon Creek to the central Vancouver church.
“He came through the door, and I’m telling you it’s like he walked into Heaven,” said Neal Curtiss, Living Hope’s ministry pastor.
Opening an overnight warming center hasn’t been easy, Curtiss said, and the church wasn’t always able to open, but adding up all the nights spread out over a couple of months of brutal weather, the church hosted people overnight for three weeks.
“The undertaking of this particular winter has been huge for us,” Curtiss said. “We’ve been able to do it, but it’s been an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing.”
Volunteers braved the weather to make sure the church could open as often as possible. It was staffed primarily by church members, not professionals.
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“We don’t do any kind of Breathalyzer or drug test,” Curtiss said. “Sometimes, that can be for better or for worse.”
Donations were dropped off in droves. The massive parking lot in front of the church (a former Kmart) was plowed. Curtiss said the Council for the Homeless would contact him, requesting that the church open, and the church would move into action.
“People were saying, ‘I will be there. It doesn’t matter how bad it gets,’ ” he said.
The church provided supplies such as sleeping bags and clothes, dinner, breakfast, a sack lunch and a space to lay a sleeping bag. They showed movies, too. One morning, the church received 500 sandwiches from the Evergreen Public Schools that (with school closed) would’ve otherwise been thrown away.
While Curtiss noted that there’s a biblical mandate to help out people in need, it’s also just about one person serving another because they can. It doesn’t matter if people earned it or deserved it, but simply that they are in need.
Once, a woman arrived at the warming center wearing just a T-shirt and sweatpants, saying she was there because she’d left her abusive husband.
Curtiss also talked with a man who said he was an Iraq War veteran struggling with PTSD, and struggling to hold down a job and support his two kids. “We talked for a long time. It just touched my heart to talk to a veteran,” Curtiss said.
Then, there was Ivy, who celebrated her sixth birthday at the warming center. A video shows her sitting in a sleeping bag among a sea of other sleeping bags as several people sing “Happy Birthday” and bring her a cake. Dressed in pink princess pajamas, she stands up to blow out the candles.
Occasionally, people showed up when the shelter was not open and hung around or got upset. Church staffers who met these people tried to find others shelters that could take them in. Having to turn people away and send them back out into the elements “was a major reminder of why we do what we do,” Curtiss said.
The church’s warming center was not open last week.