You could see he was weary from 30 feet away. Sean signed in for the night at First Presbyterian Church on 10th Avenue in Anchorage, his two daughters in tow. Malala was 2; Samantha just shy of 5. Sean was 30, a single dad for several years who said a tax refund hadn’t come soon enough to keep the family off the street.
Sarah Kleedehn’s volunteer team and the church couldn’t do anything about Uncle Sam’s refund, but there would be no street for Sean’s family tonight.
“Thank you for doing this,” Sean said to several volunteers.
This is the Emergency Cold Weather Shelter, the work of 11 churches and more than 100 volunteers to make sure families experiencing homelessness have a warm, welcoming place to stay when the city’s other family shelters run full. Most churches cover one night a week; two cover two nights a month. Eleven congregations participate, although only nine provide space.
“It’s not weather,” said Marcus Geist, a veteran volunteer at First Presbyterian. “It’s all the other aspects of their life that are weighing on whether they stay with us.” Geist has marveled at the resourcefulness and resilience of both kids and adults he’s welcomed. He recalled one guest family that lined up “smallest to tallest and sang for everyone… almost like Polynesian von Trapps.”
They may not have had a home, but they still had something to give. “Their emotional strength is impressive,” Geist said. Impressive and sorely tried.
That was clear in breaking bread with Sean this February night. While dad was tired the girls were wired, too excited at first to sit down for supper in the church kitchen. Worn but maintaining, Sean gently chided Malala to remember her please and thank-yous, told Samantha “that’s not a toy” when she began to run kitchen laps with a ladle in hand. A chef by trade, he appreciated the homemade lentil soup in the crockpot but declined a bowl because he’s allergic to onions. Over salad, crusty bread and warmed-up pizza, he said he was counting on $6,400 in a tax refund to get squared away again. For now, his lot was the kindness of strangers and grace under pressure.
After supper he joined Samantha on the floor of the multipurpose room off the kitchen.
“Are we building a house?” asked Samantha as she dug into a big box of Duplos.
“We’re building a wall,” he joked.
Malala joined the construction after an orange in the kitchen. She made her dad laugh whenever she couldn’t get a brick to fit: “What the …?” She never finished the exclamation, always ending with “the.” Brick by brick four walls went up, and bridges between them.
A couple expecting a child arrived to spend the night and nodded as they passed the Duplo creation. They took their packs behind a partition that screened a pair of mattresses. They weren’t looking to socialize.
They were a reminder of what Ralph Duerre, coordinator for First Presbyterian’s volunteers, had emailed to bring: “You’ll need to bring compassion. Our guests are generally experiencing very difficult times.” Sometimes compassion is a warm welcome, then leaving your guests in peace.
Sean rubbed his eyes and stretched out on the floor for a moment to ease his back. Sometimes grace needs to get out from under pressure for a long, deep breath.
Quarter to 10, and Sarah told the girls it was time for bed. The house went back in the toy box. Sean went out to his car, the one he and his daughters would have been sleeping in that night if not for the church, and brought in a small, flat-screen television. The kitchen went dark and the families settled in for the night, three adults, two children and one on the way. Fewer than the 15 to 20 average of recent weeks.
Downstairs, volunteer Paul Rotkis took the first watch. Overnight volunteers alternate nap and vigil so someone is always awake from lights out to breakfast. In the wolf hours, when a single dad’s sleep might be vexed by the prospect of another homeless day, there was at least the comfort that his daughters could dream in peace. Church isn’t home, but when love abides there, it’s a stop on the way.