Deuteronomy 15:10 Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. 11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
At the end of the line, there’s a gate. If you ever find yourself saying, “I worked so hard; how could this happen?” You’re not alone, and God’s not done. Chicago’s Pacific Garden Mission has fed and roofed the homeless since 1877, but that hard work hasn’t prevented some trials. The mission took up residence in its South Loop building in 1923, but after the city and private businesses pumped millions of dollars into renovating the area, the new class of residents claimed Eminent Domain and evicted the homeless to protect property values. According to the 1985 article in the Chicago Tribune, out of 134 residents who responded to the South Loop News survey on the matter, only two felt that they should leave the mission alone.
It took several years, but in 2007, the Pacific Garden Mission had a new $5mil building. PGM is completely funded by private donations, so it will take time to pay that mortgage, but I had a chance to take a tour, and it is a model for every city. The 150,000 square foot building designed by architect Stanley Tigerman has 100 solar panels, intense insulation and energy-efficient heating and air. The greenhouse, apiary (they have their own bees!) and chicken yard supplied a portion of the 1590 meals served in January. There is a landscaped courtyard in the middle, so that residents can enjoy the outdoors. The fully functional medical facility also offers dental and eye care and has its own pharmacy. Four full-time doctors give students from the university an opportunity for internship credit. In addition to training college students, PGM offers training to those in need of a fresh start. Residents learn horticulture, conservation, computer skills, sewing and life skills, and get their GEDs. A daycare provides service so that moms and dads can find work or just take a break once in awhile. A hair salon and donated clothes get them interview-ready.
My guide John, a former counselor for IDOC (Illinois Department of Corrections), led me down the enormous window-lined entrance hall. Street signs designate the various gathering rooms. John told me it might seem a little strange, but the park benches and street lights seem to help some of the longer-term homeless feel more at ease. The area is clean and bright with a sunny yellow floor. It’s important to help guests feel at ease, because in order to keep bugs at bay, they must shower and sleep in hospital gowns while their clothes are baked overnight. The mission can comfortably house up to 950 people per night in bunkbeds stacked up to 3 levels high, but John pointed out stacks of gym mats and children’s cots: “We don’t turn anyone away.” In January, the average was 1011 per night. John says, “If I left my office too long, I was likely to come back and have to step over sleeping bodies on the floor.”
Guests come in at 7pm and go through a pat-down, to keep weapons and drugs out. They answer a few questions at the desk, where a worker cross-references their Social Security numbers against a database of registered sex offenders, who are not permitted to stay in places where women and children are present. Instead, the workers do what they can to get them to a place where they can receive help.
At 8pm, guests go upstairs to shower and sleep until 4:45am, when the PGM day begins. They are not required to leave the shelter, but they can’t stay in bed. They must find something to do, and there is plenty from which to choose. There are Bible studies, classes, meals, a gym and a day room. For newly released prisoners who are staying at the mssion, IDOC requires a rehabilitative course. For others, courses aren’t required, but recently the rule has changed to allow a maximum stay of 30 days without choosing some type of course designed to help participants to become self-sufficient. At the minimum, graduates of their program can leave with computer skills and a GED.
Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that appears right, but in the end it leads to death.” Sometimes we follow our hearts or our appetites and they shred our lives. Sometimes we allow past traumas to dictate our behavior. Sometimes people are just mean and we suffer the consequences of their actions. Homelessness happens for all sorts of reasons, and because each person has to learn some things by experience, it’s not likely to go away completely. But Pacific Garden Mission looks at each person as an individual and says, “Take my hand. I can get you out of this.” Check out the stories on their website. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is for an ordinary person to end up homeless. You’ll be inspired at how God works through diligence and unity to make real change. Then, look at your community. Is the help in your town seriously underfunded or maybe just very disjointed and redundant? Find a ministry that accomplishes good through cooperation and give of yourself. It takes many, many hands to do the work at PGM, but manoman what they get done.