I’ve known Frank and Louise Fargo for years. Or, to be completely honest, my wife has known them for years. I just tagged along.
I knew Frank mostly as an energetic, helpful guy who seemed to enjoy working with the youth at his church, and knew how to fix stuff. This would come in handy.
In 2008, the Fargos bought a used fifth-wheel trailer, which Frank repaired and remodeled, including installing a full-size shower that was fed by an instant hot water heater. In June the first shower was taken.
Let me again be completely honest: It’s possible a shower was taken before June. Maybe a test shower. Sometimes you need those.
Inspired by Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski, and struck by Yankoski’s description of being homeless and going weeks without a shower, the Fargos found something else they could fix.
They formed Shower To The People, a 501(3c) nonprofit that twice a week, Wednesday nights in Everett and Saturday mornings in Lynnwood, offers showers to anyone who needs or wants one, along with toiletries, towels, clothing, etc. Some weeks that means upwards of 65 showers, and they’re approaching a grand total of 9000 over the past 7-1/2 years. That’s the equivalent of one hot shower a day, every day, during that period, for three people. Or nine people, if they reach the 65/week level.
It’s a lot of showers, at any rate. And a lot of soap and shampoo.
It can be easy to let this go unnoticed; a homeless person needs food, shelter, and safety, an immediate fix to a perpetual problem. Hygiene can seem to fit somewhere slightly lower on the list, nice and necessary but maybe not right this minute.
It represents just one of the traps, though, that our homeless population faces every day. How can you go to a job interview, for example, when you haven’t been able to bathe in a week or longer? Or you have to cart around your belongings because you have no place to store them?
How do you save enough to pay deposits and first and last month rents, even if you do have a job, when housing costs are skyrocketing and you live in a car that needs gas and maybe payments and your kids need daycare while you work?
This is a cycle with many moving parts, which we here at REACH are all too familiar with, but the solution also has many parts. We also know this.
So do Frank and Louise. And they know how to fix things.
So they fixed this one thing, as much as they could. They have a new rig now, with two showers. They still show up, twice a week, open for business and open to anyone.
Such a simple thing. Such a complex set of problems. Such a solution, a moving part that actually moves.
Homelessness is a national problem, and a global one, but one that is mostly addressed locally, on our own streets and neighborhoods. This is what REACH tries to do here in the South Sound area. This is what the Fargos are trying to do in Snohomish County. Find a part they can fix, and fix it.
You can read more about Shower To The People at their website, learn their story and what they do. While you’re there, like their Facebook page. As with REACH, the more attention they get, the easier it is to fix the problem.
Because there’s always another problem. They keep moving. So we have to move, too. Something Frank and Louise know all about.
Every few days, I wrap a piece of masking tape around the sole of my shoe. These are sneakers, well past their prime, and I walk a lot. It’s not unusual for me to cover 30-40 miles every week, although not so much lately. Still, they tend to wear out, and this particular shoe is a little flappy.
I haven’t bought new sneakers because I don’t want a cheap pair, and I’m procrastinating about spending the $70-80 at least it’ll cost to get anything decent. The weather is lousy for walking, anyway.
I’m making a financial decision, then. A choice.
I make other choices along this line, guided by a fiscal morality chart that exists only in my head. Is this a splurge, and is it worth it? Along those lines. There’s very little pressure. I just choose.
But we’re not talking about me.
Let’s take a hypothetical. You have to choose between buying food or paying the electric bill. What to do?
This is not actually a hypothetical. By the way.
Let’s consider our options, though. It’s not a hard call. If you don’t eat, you will eventually die. Here in western Washington, without electricity you’ll be uncomfortable but you probably will stay alive (you won’t freeze to death, in other words, or it’s not likely). Choose now.
Choose again. And again. Keep choosing. You’re getting there. Now again.
OK. Sorry. That wasn’t any fun at all.
As REACH’s community chaplain, Rev. Leigh Weber, often points out, many people in the Renton area who come to our weekend evening meals are not homeless. We sometimes refer to them as being on the margins, or near-homeless, but really they’re just choosers. Sometimes elderly. Sometimes families with small children. People with bills for water and electricity, rent or mortgages, health insurance, car payments, daycare, gas. Regular bills, just like you have. As I have.
There’s just not enough. Not enough money to pay them all, so now they have to choose. A nutritious, belly-filling meal, served with compassion but no price tag and no tipping, please, is often the difference between turning on the heat and sleeping on the street, where choice becomes different, difficult, and dangerous.
If the homeless persons among us are often invisible – and of course they are – then the choosers are luckier, if only superficially. We can see them. We just don’t know what choices they’re pondering, what precipices they’re dangling over, what options are slowly disappearing and how desperately they’re hanging on to what’s left.
Maybe luck is not what we should be talking about.
Or maybe it is, except we need a mirror and possibly a little imagination. I wrap masking tape around my shoe because I don’t want to buy new ones today. Maybe next week. Maybe next month.
Maybe you, too, have your own masking tape stories. An oil change postponed. A teeth cleaning put off. A spontaneous trip reevaluated and taken off the table as too expensive for right now. Some other time.
But if our bellies are full, and our only concern about electricity revolves around the windstorm howling outside our window, then maybe we are the lucky ones.
Help us help, if you can. If you want. If you feel like it. If you’re feeling lucky. You choose.
A young woman approached me as I walked through the parking lot of Safeway, my arms full of groceries, and I knew she wanted to tell me a story.
She drew my attention, and immediately I could have been a jerk, easily. Just by telling her what she was about to tell me. She was stranded. Somehow, people get stranded in this particular parking lot. They need to get back home, which is usually somewhere south of where we are, because their car has broken down or they’re out of gas. Somebody did them wrong. Sometimes an unseen child is mentioned.
I could have told her that I’ve heard the story before, nearly word for word, and how amazing that is to me, after all these years. I was hearing it, in approximately the same spot, since before this young woman was born, probably. I’ve lived here a long time.
And I could have told her that I knew it was a lie. Of course. Just a scam like any other scam, this one up close and personal, designed to tug at guilt and compassion until your pocket is picked.
I’ve been a jerk before, a couple of times. I’ve played the role of mentor in performance art, critiquing their deliveries and suggesting that some creativity needs to be injected. It was getting stale, this plea for gas money or bus money or money for whatever, money always.
I chose curiosity over jerkiness this time, so I listened to her monologue, recognizing the familiar elements and appreciating a couple of twists (she was pregnant, she tossed out as almost an afterthought, although there was no hint of a baby bump yet). I brought up the reality of the past 20 years or so; people don’t carry cash as much anymore. I certainly don’t.
She anticipated this, though, and asked if I couldn’t go back inside the store and get some.
I could have complicated things then, offered to fill her car up with gas, but unless she’d been taking improv classes the conversation would have quickly devolved into accusations and bad words. I considered my options.
I went back into the store and withdrew $20, and would have given it to her, but she knew I knew, and caution being the better part of begging she was gone by the time I came back, probably assuming I went to find a store manager to complain about being accosted.
I held all the cards, debit and otherwise. I was older but taller and probably stronger, not that I was threatened in any way. Mostly, I had money and she wanted it. That’s my superpower in this situation. My vulnerability, she hoped, my kryptonite, was kindness.
I’m not really that kind.
This is why we do what we do. Why we walk on by, why we turn our heads and pat our pockets, the universal sign for rationalizing our disengagement. I’d help if I had it, and so on.
That’s a lie, too, although a gentle and understandable one.
It gnaws at us sometimes, though, the need behind the stories and the signs, true or false. They sometimes visit us at night, all those Please help! and God bless scrawls. They trudge noisily up our stairs, like Jacob Marley’s ghost, dragging the chains they forged in lives we can barely imagine. We can’t help everyone. Can we help anyone?
Yes, we can.
Through REACH, approximately 75 people can find shelter in Renton on any given night. We can feed approximately the same amount each day. It’s not enough, but it’s an improvement.
And we don’t stop.
But we need your help. We are a nonprofit community organization that runs on an engine of human kindness. Your kindness. This is why we say “help us help.” We can’t do it without you.
Click on the “Giving” tab and consider helping us help. A little, a lot, it all works in the same way. You can’t help everyone; we can’t either, but we still believe that somehow, someday, we can.
Help us help. It’s easy, it’s simple, it’s appreciated, it’s goodness, but it comes with a warning: Once you start to help, it’s hard to stop.
And nobody likes noisy ghosts. They’re the worst.
Harmed yet not harmful.
Quiet but not silent.
Have tripped, yet will never fall.
The women you see before you are women without a home, not homeless women.
Strong, brave, cultured, passionate, and surviving.
And all with a center full of hope
- - Former resident of Center of Hope
The poem above exemplifies the essence of our organization: a safe place where “homelessness” is redefined by acts of compassion and appreciation for our residents’ resilience. A place where hope can be restored. Volunteering with Center of Hope is different. There are no institutional barriers or regulations to hinder our ability to support the families and individuals who choose to stay with us.
How is Center of Hope different?
The rules at the shelter are simply to check in before 10pm each night and check out in the morning by 8am, eat food only in the designated eating room, and no strangers in their rooms. Otherwise, residents are free to make their rooms as comfortable as they like because the shelter is not just a shelter. It is a home.
Toni Booker (Staff, UW Information Technology) emphasizes the notion of family as a unique aspect of COH: “Having assigned sleeping rooms and being able to leave your things in a safe place (and not have to worry about them getting stolen) is a huge difference. You also get to know each family. A camaraderie is formed. COH allows the families to use the microwave and there's a place to store their food. We also have a "homework table" where school agers can sit together and complete their school assignments. Volunteers are available to tutor and read to the preschoolers. Another uniqueness is this: we offer them rest. Spiritually, mentally, as well as physically.”
Battle to Campaign with Huskies at Center of Hope
COH is program of REACH . Together, REACH and the staff at COH work with the city of Renton to form strong alliances between the city government, churches, and other non-profit organizations in order to make forward strides in the battle against homelessness. In doing so, we had a role in decreasing the number of homeless children in Renton into single digits in one year - from 19 unsheltered children to 5!
The notion of growth holds a strong presence at the shelter and is often seen in the progress families make towards finding housing and jobs, as well as within the insights gained by volunteers during their shifts. At Center of Hope, there is room for genuine personable communication between volunteers and families. As a result, opportunities are created for the emergence of understanding and compassion.
Current and past students of the University of Washington contribute to that open communication at the shelter. From helping kids with homework to helping mothers further their career endeavors, there is no limit to what volunteers can help with. In this era of technological advances in communication methods and acute attention to social media, it is important that the next generation of leaders remember that the values of listening and patience still play a critical role in making change happen. By immersing themselves into an environment that views residents not as “homeless” but as “people”, any preconceived notion volunteers had during their first shift at COH is re-shaped by personal interactions with residents. Homelessness is an intricate social issue to solve; however, better understanding regarding how diverse situations of homelessness can be - and how they evolve - provides a broadened context for solutions to be built upon.
Volunteers are involved in every aspect of making the shelter feel more like a home. We comfort residents on their first night. We rejoice and celebrate when they are invited for interviews. We are there to send them off on their last night as they move into their new place. We are invited to support families on their journey and hear about their frustrations and challenges. We are the listeners. We get to be the helpers.
Volunteering with COH is a humble opportunity to be part of one city’s solution to homelessness. We hear, firsthand, how our residents want to be supported. When we hear about homelessness, we see the mothers and children of COH - the ones who are still here and the ones who have moved on - but most notably, we know hope can be restored.
To learn more or volunteer, contact Laurie Rossnagel at email@example.com or Pearl Nguyen at firstname.lastname@example.org or , or go to reachrenton.org.
Arthur Godfrey, a radio and television broadcast pioneer who changed the stilted, formal speaking pattern of American announcers by adopting a casual, folksy tone on the air, along with jokes and spontaneous musical interludes, often had fun when reading commercials, ad libbing and usually paying no attention to the script.
In a particularly famous incident, Godfrey began a commercial spot by saying, “I HATE this product,” and continued on in this vein, segueing eventually into an endorsement of this awful thing, which turned out to be Bayer aspirin. And he didn’t really “hate” the product; his bit was to point out that he hated the idea that people needed it, that there was pain and suffering that only aspirin could relieve.
It was a silly if novel way to approach his job, but there is truth to be found in this tiny bit of nonsense from the early days of broadcast media.
We at REACH would like to thank each of you for participating in REACH Awareness Week. And yes, we wish there was no need for our organization, that in a country as affluent and rich with resources as ours no one would need to sleep in a car, or in a doorway, or even in a shelter.
But there is a need, and it’s growing. So, again, you have our gratitude.
And our mission was not really to draw attention to the work we at REACH and many organizations do to try to help the least among us, the hungry and homeless, the victims of abuse, the children who are denied childhoods and instead face danger and the unknown every day. It was to draw attention to them.
For in a bizarre but very understandable way, they are invisible. Like landmarks, street signs, statues, and shops, we pass by every day and pay no attention, until human beings suffer in front of us and we don’t see them.
It’s understandable because if we see them, if we acknowledge their pain that needs more than just an aspirin, most of us would feel compelled to help. And we don’t know how. So we look away, and eventually develop a blind spot that allows us to go about our business without having to imagine a very specific kind of horror.
So our hope is that if Reach Awareness Week did anything, it improved your vision. It allowed you to see. It drew your attention, and your attention is what is needed.
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another,” said Charles Dickens.
“When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed,” said Maya Angelou.
“No one has ever become poor by giving,” wrote Anne Frank.
And, perhaps most importantly, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has,” said Margaret Mead.
Never doubt that you can change the world, and the world becomes changeable, bit by bit, person by person, life by life.
Because these are not statues. And now, we hope, more of us will understand that.
And if a small group can change the world, let’s get a bigger group and see what happens.
Again, we’re grateful for your support, for your comments, for your visits to this site and our social media presence. We’re grateful that you’ve chosen to help us help. We need you.
And if and when the day comes that REACH closes its doors, no longer necessary in a community that values each of its citizens?
We will be grateful then. Especially then.
Martha, a mother of a family that was with us stated, “If the Center of Hope had not been here, I don’t know what we would have done.” She said, “I found all of the resources and most importantly I found people that cared about me and my family in the most vulnerable time of our life.” Before she found us she said that she was about ready to “throw in the towel” on life. She didn’t think she would be able to overcome and rise above her situation without the help of the REACH Center of Hope.
Susan, a mother who was homeless, didn’t and her and her kids were split up. Her son had to stay at one place while she and the other children stayed in another location. She could not bring all of her children with her on any given night as she tried to find a place to stay. At the Center of Hope she was able to reconnect herself with her family together again under one roof. She was thankful that she can now see her children off to school every day and be there when they return. She is able to have some quiet reflective time and resources that will help her find more stable housing. She says where she found the Center of Hope helpful is that she didn’t know what to do or where to look, but the Center of Hope had everything, and most of all people who really cared about her and her family.
With the Mayor Murray recently declaring a state of emergency on the homelessness issues in Seattle, it might be worth mentioning why I find Renton's approach to this issue such a breath of fresh air. Our solutions should always correlate with our diagnosis of the problem. So what is the driving problem in regards to homelessness?
I would say that homelessness is not a resource issue, it is a relationship issue. It is not to say that shelter doesn't matter, because it does... in fact, we provide that at REACH! But to give someone a house and then say that they are no longer homeless is not dealing with any of the root issues. Many of the folks we work with every day have high levels of trauma, abuse and neglect. We find that very few of them have the safety net of other people in their life who can help them out. I often hear people say, "I'm just one step away from being on the street myself," but I think the more accurate statement is, "We all encounter difficulty and tragedy in our lives, which is why our families, church communities, friends and neighbors are so important."
The struggle with the chronically homeless population is that often those relationships are not there; mental health, domestic violence, addiction or whatever has burned some of those bridges, or their original community has burned them for them. They then rely on their street community for support, which is a community that is in the same boat in terms of needing to survive. In fact, a lot of additional trauma is experienced on the street, as you can imagine. This deepens the personal/relational brokenness that needs addressing.
So what do we do? The beautiful thing about REACH is that it is made up of the community itself! Churches, businesses, non-profits... people. If the diagnosis is broken community and broken relationships, then the solution needs to provide community and healthy relationships. If you really want to know how to help, leave room to make a new friend, walk with someone, come down and serve, learn a name... then learn their story, share yours and see what God does to provide healing. In my experience I have found that everybody needs healing, and that this action you took to help someone else may actually be exactly what you needed. It turns out that we have the same diagnosis. This is why Jesus focuses on loving God and loving neighbor. The antidote to broken relationships is love.
Six years ago I lost my job, my house, my rental house, and was very discouraged. Because of my church, and my family, being on the street was gratefully not a concern. There is a reason that we use the word "homeless" and not "houseless." Shelter is surely one part of the problem, especially on a cold night! But let’s move as a community toward the lasting solution of healthy relationship for our brothers and sisters. We all need it!
Chris Gough is a REACH board member.
I met Dave at the Warm-Up Breakfast a year ago last summer. By that time he had been in the overnight shelter program for over a year. He was on the quiet side but had found a way to serve his fellow homeless folks. He took great pride in making the coffee for breakfast. No matter how early I got there, Dave was there already, making coffee. When we all signed “Thank You” cards to give to the donors of coffee and pastries, Dave signed “coffee man.”
Dave would sit with some of the other clients and volunteers once coffee was made but he didn’t say much. Gradually, he began to participate more in conversations. Some of the men were getting free haircuts and either shaving off or trimming beards and mustaches right before Christmas. Dave piped up to say that he would shave when he got housing. Then one day, after the first of the year he said, “I am getting an apartment!” Talk about excited! Dave couldn’t even eat any of the pancakes and eggs fixed by volunteers that morning because he had an appointment in Seattle to find out more about his housing. He told us he would still come to make coffee but he wouldn’t be able to get there every day. Once he moved he had to take 2 buses to get back to Renton and to be there to make coffee before opening at 8 in the morning was going to be tough.
It took another couple of weeks for everything to fall into place for Dave but the day came when he wasn’t at breakfast. The next time I saw him, I did a double take. That shaggy appearance was gone and now you could see even more clearly his smile that stretched from ear to ear. The community chaplain had helped him get settled into his apartment and she surprised him with his own coffee maker. He was in his own apartment and making his own coffee now. He still comes to Warm-Up Breakfast once in a while and when he does, he makes the coffee. We miss Dave but moving on to a better life is what REACH is all about so we wish him well in this new phase of his life.
Laura, her 2-year-old son, and teenage daughter (Renton Public Schools family) became homeless for the first time when her mother said they could no longer live in her home. She found herself on the street with her bag and two children and no place to go. She was almost hopeless when someone told her about the Center of Hope. She was placed in the overnight shelter and took to heart the guidance and direction given to her at the time of her intake with the staff. She followed all of the steps by making appropriate calls, and took steps to resolve barriers that might prevent her from finding housing. Within two weeks she had found a place for herself and her two children and is successfully managing her life in several areas. She has other goals, like returning to school after she obtains a job. She attributes her success to the staff at the Center of Hope. She stated, “You all made me believe in myself and see something that I didn’t see.”
We have some amazing women and families whose lives are being changed in amazing ways. Pamela and her 5-month-old daughter became homeless because of a domestic abuse situation with her father. She found her way to the Center of Hope and it became a community to her. When she came she was afraid and told us, “I don’t know how to be homeless.” Not only did she not know how to be homeless, she was also new at being a mother and there were so many things that she didn’t have any idea about. Within a couple of days, she stated how much she appreciated everyone caring for her and helping her through what she describe as the most difficult and frightening period of her life.
Jane and her two children came to the Center of Hope for help. They had been sleeping in their car because they had no place to go. She heard about the Center of Hope and we were able to get her off the street and into temporary housing as we search for more long-term housing. When we told her that we could provide a place to sleep at night, her little 10-year-old daughter began shouting, “Mommy, we don’t have to sleep in that cold car anymore?”