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Church launches plan to address homelessness

At the corner of West Third Avenue and South Howard Street, where drug deals are common and panhandling yields profits, the staff at Central United Methodist Church has a front-row seat to the issue of homelessness.

The church is done waiting for someone else to come up with a solution to both sides of the issue: helping those who are homeless and cleaning up the downtown area.

A $100,000 initiative beginning this month aims to provide job training and support systems for homeless people.

In cooperation with Shalom Ministries, the church for years has fed the hungry. Pastor Ian Robertson said the new initiative extends that program beyond meals.

“We (were) giving them breakfast and then we say, ‘OK, you’re out on the street now.’ ” The $100,000, which came from the church’s endowment, is going toward programs like job training and perks for homeless people who choose to volunteer.

Robertson said many homeless people are willing to do jobs around the city, like clean up graffiti, for such perks as a shower or laundry.

“With all the wonderful clothing banks, they get clothes,” Robertson said, but “they have no place to wash them. They’re discarded on the streets.”

The goal is to help the city as much as the people on the street.

“If we can beautify this area with fewer panhandlers and fewer people on the streets, it’s going to make for a better city,” he said.

City of Spokane spokesman Brian Coddington said the city does not have a formal agreement to work with the church on the initiative but always welcomes new resources.

“Certainly, this is a community effort,” Coddington said. “Resources like this are what’s needed to help with our community effort to reduce and end regional homelessness in Spokane County.”

Robertson said many of the people he meets on the street are well-educated and have a strong work ethic. With someone to give them another chance, even if it’s just a place to spend time off the street, they often thrive, he said.

The church has opened its basement floors to Shalom Ministries to run its meal program. The church now allows folks to hang around in a gym-like space, whether they are having a meal, a cup of coffee or just want someone to talk to.

One of the biggest challenges, the pastor said, is to convince people that panhandling is not a way of life. Handouts, although often well-intentioned, make it hard to sway someone toward a working life.

“There are more generous people in Spokane than you can believe,” Robertson said. “People wish they could do something about it.”

The church, which has hired some of the previously homeless people it has trained, is working to find grants or other funding methods to keep the program running after the initial six months. Robertson said the funds are a way to lead by example.

“It’s enough to say that we are serious about getting people off the street, about beautifying our community and starting right here in downtown Spokane,” he said.