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Truth Ministries shelter struggles to keep serving

Volunteer Gianna Zangar, 8, brings a plate of food to one of the clients of Truth Ministries homeless shelter Sept. 16. Gianna, who has been volunteering at the shelter with her family for years, saved up her allowance all summer to donate to the shelter because she wants “her boys” to have a place to stay. (Colin Mulvany)
Volunteer Gianna Zangar, 8, brings a plate of food to one of the clients of Truth Ministries homeless shelter Sept. 16. Gianna, who has been volunteering at the shelter with her family for years, saved up her allowance all summer to donate to the shelter because she wants “her boys” to have a place to stay. (Colin Mulvany)

The third-grader with bright eyes and a big smile looked small before a room full of homeless men, but her stature is deceptive – the little girl’s heart is bigger than most grown-ups’.

About 30 men fixed their eyes on 8-year-old Gianna Zangar as she led them in prayer at Truth Ministries Spokane.

It was a Wednesday in mid-September, and director Marty McKinney had just announced the shelter would close if a miracle didn’t come.

“This is like a broken record,” McKinney said. “Every couple of years we have to tell people ‘Hey, we’re dying here.’ ”

It’s been 10 years since he and his wife, Julie McKinney, opened the ministry’s doors.

The couple, both of whom are deeply religious, decided long ago they wanted to be doers, not talkers. They were sick of sitting in church, hearing prayers without action. The shelter was their action, but even Marty McKinney wondered if it’s worth it anymore.

It hasn’t been easy.

Eight years ago they had to move to their current location at 1910 E. Sprague Ave. when their landlord sold their previous space downtown.

The space is clean and well-lit, but shows the wear of eight years of homeless men spending the night. The couches are torn, the paint peeling in some spots. The hardwood floors are rubbed smooth from hundreds of feet.

The last time things were good was 2009, said Julie McKinney. And then the shelter lost three of its largest donors, who each gave more than $1,000 a month. That’s big money for a shelter that can operate comfortably on $60,000 annually. Since then, it’s been a new battle every month to piece together a budget from private donors, Marty McKinney said.

“When you’re out of toilet paper, $5 looks like a lot of money,” McKinney said. “And we’re out of toilet paper.”

He’s dipped into his own pocket to pay for the charity. He works odd construction jobs around town. His wife works at a Fred Meyer deli.

“Things around the house are broken,” he said. “I can’t afford to fix them. I don’t have time to fix them.”

McKinney said he is defeated, even bitter. It’s exhausting, he said, to work eight hours a day, then another eight hours at the shelter without knowing where the next dollar is coming from.

“It’s just to the point we can’t put a Band-Aid on it,” he said.

The shelter’s end would mean 50 beds for Spokane’s homeless gone, and the McKinneys’ life work shuttered.

Closure would strain shelters

Recent years have been a struggle for other area shelters as well. Two years ago, Catholic Charities’ House of Charity suspended its overnight accommodations due to lack of funding.

There hasn’t been discussion of cutting overnight stays again and the shelter has operated normally thus far this year, said Kevin Parks, operating coordinator for the shelter.

But if Truth Ministries does shut down, there’s nothing the House of Charity can do to help the men who stay there, he said. The shelter can’t accommodate more than 108 people, even on frigid nights.

Dean Whisler, social services manager at Union Gospel Mission, said the 50 extra men would put a strain on resources, but only temporarily.

Whisler, however, adds that UGM doesn’t take people who are drunk or appear to be on drugs; McKinney will when it’s below freezing at night.

“We don’t want him to have to close,” Whisler said. “He certainly is part of our community.”

‘God will find a way’

McKinney said through the years, Truth Ministries has helped countless homeless men find homes, break their addictions and turn their lives around.

Tim Whitman has one of those stories. Only a few teeth peek out from the 48-year-old’s crooked smile.

He was addicted to methamphetamine for 20 years, he said. A few years ago he lost his job and survived on unemployment benefits. Then he lost his house and had to sleep on couches of friends, most of whom were doing meth or heroin themselves.

Whitman imagines the life he could have had: a wife, kids, a job and a home.

“I really wish I could have those years back,” he said.

But he’s stepping into a new life. He’s clean now, he said. He first checked into Truth Ministries on Dec. 6. He hasn’t smoked meth since.

“This place really did save my life,” he said.

Whitman volunteers occasionally, but he’s still homeless. He lives at Union Gospel Mission and works part-time as a truck driver.

“I wish I could help more,” Whitman said. “God will find a way if it’s meant to be. If not, it wasn’t meant to be. Things have a way of doing that around here, don’t they, Marty?”

“Yeah,” McKinney replied softly. “It’s happened before. We’ve seen pretty heavy stuff, but God’s all about heavy stuff.”

A summer’s worth of allowance

Gianna and her mother, Nicolle Blackburn, were at the shelter last month cooking dinner for residents. When McKinney opened the door, Gianna handed him a zip-close bag of coins and small bills; $32, a summer’s worth of allowance. Blackburn has been bringing Gianna to the shelter since she was old enough to stir a pot. For her part, Gianna says of shelter residents, “They’re really lucky to have Truth Ministries. I pray to God that it never shuts down. This is a nightmare.”

Later that night, Gianna scampered into McKinney’s office, handed him a check, then ran out. Another $50 on top of the $32 sitting on his desk. McKinney grinned and cheered for the help.

“Oh, you are so awesome,” he said to the little girl, laughing. “Thank you!”

‘Why would I lose faith now?’

A week later, McKinney was preparing to open the shelter for the evening.

He was a new man.

Truth Ministries still had to raise $2,000 for October, then the battle would begin anew for November.

But that week, McKinney was not giving up hope.

“God shook my tree and said ‘Wake up,’ ” he shouted. “Why would I lose faith now?”

Donations through Truth Ministries’ fundraising website have rolled in, including $500 from an anonymous donor. The Christian Motorcyclists Association donated $800, covering its insurance payment.

Local churches have pledged monthly donations.

McKinney knows it will be an uphill battle to reach a full operations budget for a year. But he’s been fighting for 10 years, and he’s not stopping now.

“It was that little girl that started to wake me up,” he said, slamming a hand on the counter and pointing to the place where just a week ago Gianna stood praying.

McKinney led the residents in prayer. About 30 men fixed their eyes on him, a man who was ready to quit a week ago.

“We got September paid for,” he told residents. “We are not going anywhere. I lost my faith. Sorry.”

“You can applaud that, please,” he added.

The men clapped as they waited for a hot meal, a bed and a few hours of respite before they returned to the streets of Spokane.