March 11, 2009 in City

Homeless shelter turns to community to stay open

By The Spokesman-Review
Colin Mulvany photo

After working all day unloading semi-trucks, Clayton Smith relaxes at the Truth Ministries homeless shelter Tuesday night, March 10, 2009. The organization is having a fund-raiser on Saturday, but what the all-volunteer shelter really needs are new regular donors to replace the two churches and one business that dropped support because of hard times. COLIN MULVANY The Spokesman-Review
(Full-size photo)

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Kevin Graman can be reached at (509) 459-5433 or

In a society dependent on philanthropic support for many of its social services, the last refuge for the poor is often the first to fall in hard times.

This winter, amid the weak economy, a Spokane homeless shelter managed almost entirely on faith came to grips with this cold reality.

Truth Ministries’ beds are full, but its bank account is empty.

“Right now, we are $2,500 in the red,” said Marty McKinney, shelter director. “Most of that is utilities.”

In January, as temperatures reached record lows, the cost of heating went up. Marty and his wife, Julie, said Avista Utilities has gone “out of its way to help us” by giving them more time to pay.

“But when you get behind, it keeps adding up,” Julie McKinney said. She added that one guest, used to harsher sleeping conditions, suggested the shelter shut off the heat.

“We have turned it down,” she said.

But Truth Ministries’ problems are more serious by several degrees. This winter, the economic downturn forced the shelter’s largest donors, a local business and two churches, to withdraw support for the shelter totaling $1,600 a month.

So the McKinneys, who have devoted themselves to helping Spokane’s most needy, again are asking the community for a hand.

This Saturday, Marty McKinney said, friends of the shelter – “three motorcycle ministries and some Cub Scouts” – will collect donations at the intersection of Hamilton Street and Mission Avenue.

“We’re going to call it ‘Chuck it in a Bucket,’ ” McKinney said.

It won’t be the first time the volunteer-run shelter has depended on Spokane’s generosity.

In 2005, when the ministry lost its lease in a downtown building, the McKinneys found a landlord who offered them generous terms on a new building at 1910 E. Sprague Ave. When it turned out the new building did not meet code, contractors and laborers showed up to make the necessary renovations.

While the work was being done, the McKinneys persuaded the late Mayor Jim West to allow them to set up a makeshift homeless camp on city property – the former Playfair horse racing track. The order was unexpected from a mayor who a year earlier signed an ordinance outlawing camping on city property.

At the time, West drew a distinction between transients camping in parkways or under bridges and Truth Ministries’ clientele.

“These are really responsible people who have fallen on hard times,” West said. “It’s all about moving people out of homelessness.”

Truth Ministries strongly encourages its guests to look for employment and a way out of homelessness, McKinney said. About half of the 40 men now at the shelter are employed.

While Saturday’s fundraiser may resolve Truth Ministries’ immediate crisis, the shelter’s future remains in doubt without long-term contributors to replace the ones lost this winter.

Despite the state of the economy, Julie McKinney continues to rely on faith to save the shelter once again.

“God will pull us through this,” she said. “If he told us to pack up and leave, we would.”

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