Homeless for the holidays
Locals volunteer to create a special holiday for the homeless at nearby church
January 5, 2016
Arriving at Trinity United
It’s the holiday season, and people from the community are cooking at Trinity United Methodist Church in Ballard. Christmas is in six days, but rather than doing last minute shopping, these volunteers are bustling about in the kitchen.
A young child mixes ingredients into a KitchenAid and a woman stirs food inside seven large, metal pots as Cheryl Gohndrone, a Saturday Soup Coordinator, tells us the meat is in the oven. Gohndrone is in charge of the bigger annual events, while another coordinator, Gord’n Perrot, organizes the weekly events.
In total, there are six coordinators who organize volunteers to meet at 9 a.m. on Saturdays to prepare the average meal of soup and sandwiches for anyone who shows up. Everyone is welcome, and sometimes elderly people come for the company, but most guests are homeless or low-income, and need a substantial meal or just a safe place inside for a few hours.
Today, however, will not just be soup and sandwiches. A holiday feast will be served just before noon to approximately 100 guests who are gathering around circular tables in the gym.
Sunlight fills the room through the windows and above the old floor hangs two beat up basketball hoops on either side. The air is potent with a mix of the kitchen’s aroma and stale cigarettes. Guests toast bread for themselves at a nearby table and grab cups of coffee as a low chatter rises.
On each table is a Saturday Soup Kitchen sign with their mission statement and rules. “We provide a meal, encouragement, kindness, and respect to our guests.” The rules include respect, no drugs, no violence and keeping the area clean.
Volunteer Susan Helf takes us to a back room, where five women practice Christmas carols. Three volunteers sign cards for the guests’ gift bags that Gohndrone has organized. The gift bags huddle in a group on the floor; slices of pie sit on a nearby table, waiting to be eaten later.
Helf joins in song as she shows us the gift bag items. “Christ is born in Bethlehem,” they sing. Helf takes out two pairs of socks, one hat, one washcloth, one pair of gloves, a scarf and playing cards. “Glory to the newborn king,” the women continue. The bag also contains two Ziploc bags, one full of toiletries and one full of snacks.
The gift bags, each about $15 worth of items, and the food, are funded by year round donations and proceeds from the spring auction.
We make our way back to the gym to talk to a few guests. Many are interested in the camera, but prefer to not be photographed. Gohndrone and Perrot point us in the direction of a circular table of men, who hassle each other about who will be interviewed. The group elects a man named Mel as their leader, who I gladly sit down to talk to.
Meeting the guests
Mel is a funny guy. When I sit down he tells me, “I’ll answer the questions like I do the Republicans and Democrats, okay?” He tells onlookers we’re doing a photoshoot, and insists we shake hands for a photo, so we do.
Mel comes to the Saturday meals at Trinity United on a regular basis, or what he likes to call passing through. “I do come here,” he says. “But I don’t have no plans on being here.”
I have a hard time understanding Mel’s answers, because when I ask how it feels to be provided with a consistent meal, though he does say he’s appreciative of this specific program, Mel tells me about the county and taxes and charity, and I get lost in all the information, until he finally finishes and says to me, “Okay, now, next question.”
The table we’re sitting at has candy canes as decorations and in the back of my mind I know the carolers and gift bags will be out shortly, so I ask Mel about the holiday feast, and how it’s different from the regular Saturday meals. “The only difference is we get the holiday dinner instead of the soup and sandwich,” he says.
He clarifies his gratitude for the regular meal. “I tell [people], if they don’t like it, they can go down the street and go buy it for a change. There’s some people that do have money, and can go buy their own food, you know. But there are people who come up here and don’t have no money, that needs a meal.”
Though it’s obvious he’s appreciative, when I ask Mel about his favorite part of the program, he simply says, “Nothing,” and the surrounding men laugh. “Absolutely zero. Zero.”
I try to clarify by asking, “You don’t like anything at all?” He tells me he just passes through to visit and socialize. The men listen in, and they’re getting quite a good laugh out of the situation.
Despite the group’s previous banter about who their leader is, when I ask if they’re his friends, Mel says, “I just see them from time to time . . . Everybody’s got their own specific ways of doing things throughout the week, they got their own schedules to follow and most likely you won’t see them.”
In between questions, Mel says, “Next question. I’m like a politician.” I ask about his story; I ask how he got here. But before he opens his mouth, I do my best to banter too, by warning the very literal Mel to not tell me that he got here by bus.
Mel came to Seattle from Portland for medical reasons, because back then we had better medical up here. He didn’t want his three surgeries to be performed in Oregon because according to him, “Oregon doesn’t give you nothing.”
“This was supposed to have been a three hour trip. Like Gilligan’s Island? A three hour trip,” he says. “I said, ‘I’ll be back in three years.’ Those three years has turned into almost 20 years.”
Mel doesn’t like it here. “You can have Seattle if you want. I’ll give you Seattle,” he tells me. “I don’t particularly care for the people. Never have, never will. The only thing Seattle is good for is medical.”
But he is thankful for the volunteers cooking in the kitchen. “I always say I thank them all the time,” he says. “If it wasn’t for [them] we wouldn’t be here.”
Next we meet one of the few women, Debbie. When I sit down with her, she tells a fellow guest that they can have her autograph later, and jokes about her picture being taken. “They won’t recognize me,” she says. “I used to be gorgeous.”
Debbie comes here consistently on Saturdays for the soup and sandwich meal. It’s her first holiday feast at Trinity United and she’s looking forward to the presents. “My friend said that they give sleeping bags and stuff and I could really use a sleeping bag,” she says. “I’m living in my car. But my house just sold, so things will be looking better.”
Her mother passed away in the spring, and Debbie was forced out of her childhood home in Ballard, becoming homeless in April. “I don’t handle this homeless thing well. I’m too old. If I was young, it might be kind of adventurous,” she says laughing.
The house was home to her family for many generations: her grandmother, her mother, herself and her children all lived there. She remembers Ballard when it was a much smaller community, full of fishermen and Norwegians. Now, she’s a part of the homeless community, and here at Trinity United, she’s able to socialize with old friends she hasn’t spoken to in a while.
She’s grateful for both the opportunity to socialize during the holidays and the volunteers. “I love each and every one of [them] . . . I’m not the strongest person in the world and I’m too old to do this homeless stuff, but without them I don’t know what I would do,” she says. “All these people are wonderful. I can’t say enough. Not just here, but all over . . . It almost makes me cry. There’s still good people in the world.”
The carolers, equipped with silver bells and lyric sheets, come out and start singing “Jingle Bells.” Listening in on my conversation with Debbie is an old BHS alumn, a man who prefers not to be identified. He and Debbie bond by talking about how Ballard used to be compared to how it is now.
They’re both angry, or maybe disappointed, I can’t quite tell, since Ballard’s population has changed so drastically; the man calls this a fight between cultures. Debbie says it’s a sin that we can’t take care of our own people, the ones that have been here forever, and I assume she’s referring to her own family.
Debbie leaves, and the homeless man left at the table asks what we think about food programs like this. I’m not sure how to respond, because It seems like common sense to appreciate them, and to praise the volunteers who are currently working so hard in the kitchen and the others who are singing “Joy to the World” behind him.
But I soon learn he has quite a different perspective on food programs, and starts to talk to us about a vicious cycle he’s identified. He believes these programs start out as being good, but become negative when people take advantage of them.
He thinks of these programs as an enabling process, or just Band-Aids. Though it’s important the basics are met, it’s hard for the homeless to take the next step when only provided with the basics. Rather than taking initiative and moving forward, many just come back for these basics each Saturday, never actually getting anywhere.
I’m saddened by his claims, because up until now I’ve only heard good things about places like this. Also, five or six carolers are standing not too far behind him, caroling about “Heaven and nature singing,” and the juxtaposition of merriness and failure is disappointing. “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground,” the carolers sing. “He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.”
The man mentions the idea that, even if the people in this gym had the money to go rent an apartment, many wouldn’t be able to because of the laws regarding poor credit.
Listening in is a man named Mark. He is much less cynical and enters our conversation. “It’s not enabling . . . The people that are served here don’t have a better place to be. They don’t have other choices,” Mark says. “Who’s going to be here if they have a better place to be? Who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I can’t wait to go to the soup kitchen,’ you know what I mean?”
The carolers have left, and the meal will be served in about half an hour, and the men start to argue about the purpose of that food. They talk about choices and opportunities, addiction and medical conditions.
Mark appreciates the way our homeless are dealt with locally. “[The problem] needs to be dealt with in a humane way and in a meaningful way. And I just think that all this kind of stuff is fantastic. It helps,” he says. “It’s so wonderful that there’s places like this and it would be good if there were more places like this.”
Mark compares Seattle to other cities in the nation that don’t treat homeless as kindly. He considers Seattle as a role model, and the men agree that this city is a step ahead of many other places, regarding both homeless and other problems.
The more cynical man still brings up housing, work and other larger issues, and Mark disagrees again. “I think that if somebody’s hungry, you should feed them,” Mark says. “Sometimes you have to deal with the basics before you can move on to those kinds of things.”
We talk about depending on the basics, and Mark brings up how many people can easily get stuck in a rut. As Mark tells me more of his story, it seems Debbie is a person stuck in a rut, and Mark is doing his best to help her. They’ve been friends for a long time, and are now living together in a car. When he found out about her situation in the spring, he took her and her cat in, and has helped her throughout the entire process of selling her Ballard home.
The men agree to disagree, and at 11:35 a.m. Gohndrone leaves the kitchen to introduce the meal. She tells the crowd there’s turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and other various holiday feast sides. There are murmurs about how good the food sounds and smells, and one guest cries out, “We love you!”
The feast, the gifts and Tyler
The guests form a line that circles around half the gym. Four volunteers stand behind the serving table, each putting food on the guests’ plates. Some continue to carve the meat in the kitchen. Other volunteers, including many children, bring out the gift bags from the back room, and pass them out to the guests.
Many guests go through what’s inside the bags as they eat, even opening the Ziploc bags and looking at each item inside. Gohndrone asks if everyone received a bag. One man approaches her, saying he didn’t, and when she hands him one he says, “Merry Christmas, ma’am, and thank you for the food.”
Gohndrone makes her way back to the kitchen, keeping an eye on the volunteers. While most guests eat and socialize in the gym, a few eat alone in the hallway. We take the opportunity to talk to a familiar face: Tyler, a 19-year-old boy who attended Ballard.
Tyler was suspended for smoking marijuana, and the suspension led to a fight with his family. He was kicked out and has been homeless for about a year now, never returning to school.
He doesn’t generally eat much, but if he wakes up early enough, he comes to most of the Saturday meals. Today he’s not eating the feast because he likes to train his body to not need food every day. He tells me about life as a homeless person in Ballard, and I come to understand the homeless community and his own morals.
Since Tyler has an ID, he’s able to “do returns” for other homeless people. He returns items others obtain, and gets a cut of the money back from stores. He likes to help others like this, and it seems he takes pride in the support he provides.
“If you’re hungry, we will literally steal you food. We actually put our own freedoms on the line to help people,” he says. “If you need help, you can come up to me anytime and ask me for help. If I ever need help, I want people to help me.”
Tyler has a job at Taco Bell now, where he works three or four days a week. He’s saving up to move to a cheap apartment in Brier with friends. When he’s not working, he’s spending time with his friends and his “street family,” making sure everyone is healthy and safe. “Pretty much, I’m the homeless community peacekeeper,” he tells me.
He stays in Ballard, because the homeless people here are generally better people than in other areas he’s stayed in. Living on the streets in many areas has taught him to be on guard. “Out here, you have to worry about people trying to jack your blankets when you’re asleep,” he says. “Back when I was living with my parents, it took a long time for me to wake up. Nowadays, if I feel somebody even so much as move my blanket I’m up in three seconds and hitting them in the face.”
A street family is a collection of homeless people who watch out for each other and keep each other safe. There are seven people in Tyler’s family, who he put together. The family started when Tyler first became homeless, and “Momma Victoria” took him in. She noticed he wasn’t doing too good living on the streets and asked him what was wrong. When she realized Tyler didn’t really have a support system, she told him, “I’m your street mom.”
Originally, he didn’t know what a street mom did. But he soon learned a street mom’s responsibilities: to introduce him to important people in the community, tell him all the rules and help him out in any way possible. “People mess with you less if you have a street family,” he says.
It’s close to 1 p.m. and many people are leaving, gift bags in hand. Some are just going out to have a cigarette. We’re still with Tyler, and I begin to wonder how he feels about food programs, since he seems to be all about helping others. I ask him, and he’s a bit indecisive.
“I have mixed feelings about feeds. I do like feeds because it does give me food, but I do not like feeds because most of these people in here are fine, upstanding homeless people,” he says. “Yeah, I do think that they should be open, but I do not think you should go to each and everyone one of them each and every time that they happen.”
Tyler reminds me of the cynical man I met earlier, because both are worried about the dependency on food programs, yet they’re both here at one. Tyler seems to be a bit more judgmental about the attendees of the program, rather than the structure of the program itself.
“We’re homeless, we’re scavengers, we know how to take care of ourselves. We know how to get ourselves food, we know how to get ourselves water,” he says. “If we know how to get ourselves our DOC, drug of choice, I’m pretty sure we know how to get ourselves food. We don’t need to come to feeds every time they happen.”
So I ask him why he comes to Trinity United weekly. “I do come to most of the Saturdays,” he tells me. “The reason that I do, is because they let me. I’m not going to turn down free food that somebody is offering.”
Nonetheless, I ask him about his appreciation of the program and the volunteers. “I guess it feels good to know that somebody cares. Somebody other than the other homeless people around here,” he says. He’s thankful, and asks for the volunteers to keep doing a good job.
A coordinator’s idea of what Christmas is about
We finally notice Gohndrone isn’t running around coordinating anymore, so we pull her aside to talk. In 2008, she was looking for a volunteer opportunity with flexible hours, and she learned about this program from her friend, Perrot.
“I very much believe in everybody having the basics. People pitching in to take care of each other and everybody contributing,” she says. “And there’s such a need in this community, and [volunteering] just fills me up.”
Five years ago, Christmas fell on a Saturday, and while the coordinators planned the weekly Saturday meals, they knew they couldn’t close for the holiday. Instead, they embraced it, and prepared an entire feast for the guests. Since then, they’ve made it a tradition to serve a holiday dinner the Saturday before Christmas.
“This, to me now, is more of a Christmas than my family Christmas,” Gohndrone says, as her eyes well up with tears. “Without this — and I get teary just talking about it. This is Christmas to me. This is what [Christmas is] about.”
As a volunteer for the food program, Gohndrone has met many different people, and now knows the regulars pretty well. When the economy crashed, she saw many working people attend the meals, who didn’t know about how Saturdays at Trinity United worked. “So many people are one paycheck away from needing this,” she tells me. “For me, I try to let our guests know that they’re not forgotten, that they’re important. That they are respected.”
Sometimes, homeless people she has met through the program approach her in public, and surrounding people are often confused as to how she is known to them by name.
It’s important to make the holiday feast special because the guests are reminded of happier times during this time of year. The volunteers use family recipes and try to make the meal as they would make it for their own families. “I think being alone and struggling can just really weigh on people,” Gohndrone says.
Anyone can volunteer on Saturdays, any time from setup to cleanup. High schoolers are encouraged to help because they can learn to interact with people who are different than them in a safe environment and they can learn basic cooking skills. “I think it is a really good perspective,” Gohndrone says. “So many high schoolers have so much and don’t realize it, and when you see this you realize what you have.”
I can’t help but think about about what I have, and then I think about going to school with Tyler, and his mixed feelings about food programs. I think about the cynical man I met, and about the basics being BandAids, and about Mark, the optimistic one, who values those BandAids. I think about Debbie, because she used to be gorgeous but now lives in a car; and about Mel, the politician, who told me he’ll give me Seattle, if I want it.
So finally, I ask Gohndrone about the different opinions in that gym, because she seems so caring and I’m starting to feel a bit bad.
She tells me about how, a few years ago, she called local restaurants for donations to the spring auction she organizes. One manager answered and Gohndrone gave him her spiel. “He goes, ‘Oh my gosh, when I was down between jobs I came to your soup kitchen. What do you want? I will give you whatever I can give you,’” she tells me. “And I was ready to burst into tears because it was just like, ‘Oh my gosh! Somebody that we helped and remembers us.’ So that was really cool, so you do know there are people that you help.”
Gohndrone admits that the meals may not give motivation to do more, and some may take advantage of the program, but overall she thinks that is bound to happen with any social program.
Despite the few that may take advantage, and despite the regulars that just keep returning, she has seen guests need and appreciate the help. They’ve used the program to help them get sober, get their family back or get their lives back together. I feel more hopeful when she explains this, and I begin to wonder what will happen to the people I met today, especially Tyler and his street family.
“We’re not trying to enable them,” she reassures me. “I think that there are people that don’t have the resources to get off the street. We’re just trying to make sure that people have enough to survive. And ideally enough to thrive. No one should go hungry.”