SEATTLE – For more than three decades, St. Martin de Porres Shelter in Seattle has offered homeless men a warm place to sleep and a measure of dignity.
“The guys are given eye contact, they’re given respect,” said Jennifer Newman, program director at St. Martin’s. “There are people here every day reminding them that they’re worthy and special and cared about. I think that those things make a huge difference.”
That “ministry of presence” remains at the heart of the shelter’s mission, 31 years after Catholic Community Services of Western Washington opened St. Martin’s to men 50 and older (two-thirds are ages 60-74).
Now, 365 days a year, the downtown Seattle shelter provides dinner for about 280 men and overnight shelter for 212 (the maximum allowed by city fire inspectors), Newman said. From October through March, another 34 men from St. Martin’s spend the night at eight Seattle-area churches that take turns providing shelter. Still, some 30 men are turned away on average each night, she said.
Mats at St. Martin de Porres shelter give 212 men a place to rest each night. Photo: Kristin Zwiers
Every man who comes through the doors of St. Martin’s has a different story.
“We definitely have folks that are battling with their own demons” or addictions, Newman said. But it’s not always true that alcoholism or drug addiction has caused a man to be homeless, she said: “A lot of times people get into a bad situation and they begin to self-medicate.”
Other men are homeless because of economic circumstances and the lack of affordable housing in Seattle.
“We do have a lot of people who are working and just can’t afford rent,” Newman said. A few months ago, for instance, a man in his 70s ended up at St. Martin’s “because somebody bought the apartment building he was living in and he couldn’t afford the rent,” she said.
St. Martin’s becomes home for these men, a place to get hot meals, take a shower, use the laundry room, pick up some clothing, visit the library or chapel and retire to a mat on the floor at night. Although the shelter closes during the day (CCS operates the companion Lazarus Day Center nearby), men who are ill or injured can stay all day to receive medical care or be taken to appointments.
At St. Martin’s, the staff of 24 can help men get connected to drug and alcohol counseling, and work on finding a permanent residence. Housing case managers help the men deal with any barriers to housing, such as bad credit, evictions or criminal history, Newman said. Of the 883 men served by St. Martin’s in 2014, case managers secured housing for 76 of them, she added.
Joan Clough, chaplain at St. Martin de Porres Shelter and a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in West Seattle, greets resident Roland Taylor. Photo: Kristin Zwiers
‘A magical place’
Serving dinner to more than 200 men every night of the year adds up: during 2014, St. Martin’s provided 87,885 meals.
“Every night of the month except one or two, the meal is brought in by volunteers and served by volunteers,” Newman said. Volunteer dinner crews come from different parishes, church groups and organizations like the Knights of Columbus. Some groups may provide dinner once a year, but 25 groups consistently bring a meal one or more nights each month.
“We have volunteers that literally have been serving dinner since St. Martin’s opened,” Newman said. “It’s amazing.”
That community support is what makes St. Martin’s “a magical place,” she said.
“The commitment of the churches and parishes and our volunteers is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “When the guys see that the same person is here every Wednesday night, every Thursday night — that these volunteers care and that the guys matter to them, that’s really special.”