TACOMA — Under golden morning sunlight shining through stained glass, 59-year-old Michael “Red” Adkins sat at a table inside Shiloh Baptist Church on Hilltop. With staff buzzing around him, including Pastor Gregory Christopher, he prepared for the day ahead.
Recently, Adkins was hired as a dishwasher at a local upscale seafood restaurant. He’s grateful for the opportunity and hopes it will be a stepping stone. Like many people, Adkins has goals, aspirations and areas of his life he’s trying to improve, he said. He’s a work in progress.
One of Adkins’ biggest challenges is homelessness. Off and on, it’s plagued him for years. That’s why he’s here.
Back in September, Shiloh Baptist — under Christopher’s leadership — became one of a handful of local churches that have stepped up in recent years to help Tacoma contend with its growing homelessness crisis. With space that would typically be used for Sunday school and memorial services currently going unused due to COVID-19, Christopher figured his congregation was in a position to help. Bunk beds and new mattresses now fill former classrooms in the church’s basement, providing nightly shelter for as many as 40 single men.
On Wednesday, Adkins says the shelter at Shiloh Baptist isn’t his first, but it is his favorite. The much larger Tacoma Rescue Mission and Nativity House shelters often feel like “zoos,” he said. This one is different.
Filling a void
“There’s just a more comfortable environment,” said Adkins, who moved to the Tacoma area in the mid 1990s. “I refuse to go down to the Rescue Mission because everything I don’t want to be around is down there. I just can’t live like that. I come here, I walk through the door and I don’t feel that at all.”
That’s the point, according to Christopher and shelter director Marsha Hopkins. Together, they’re well aware that single men experiencing homelessness can be one of the most difficult populations to serve, and that resources geared specifically for them can be hard to come by. They’re trying to fill that void and provide help for those who too often fall through the cracks, they say.
Zooming out to the big picture, the new men’s shelter at Shiloh Baptist is a prime example of the city’s urgent but delicate attempts to increase homeless shelter space by enlisting the help of local nonprofits and faith-based organizations. Over the last three years, Bethlehem Baptist and Altheimer Memorial have opened family shelters in Tacoma. In total, more than 100 shelter beds have been added to the system.
According to Christopher, transitioning part of the historic Hilltop church where he’s spent the last two decades as pastor hasn’t been easy. First, he had to convince parishioners and the church’s leadership that it was a good idea; then his team had to make it work.
In recent weeks the shelter has served between 17 and 30 people a night. Just last week, a formerly homeless U.S. military veteran staying at the shelter secured housing.
One reason Christopher is committed to the work, he said, is because of his own experience. He was once homeless, he said, and his oldest brother died while living on the streets.
“I’m still paying it forward,” Christopher said. “I’m committed.”
As he prepared to head out for the day, Adkins said he’s grateful for the chance Shiloh Baptist is providing him.