Plymouth Street Ministry Journal--Tuesday, June 21, 2016
I was late--I didn't get the the parking lot until 6:15pm. Barb, Brent, Brian, Karen, Pastor Mike, and Sam had been working hard for quite a while when I arrived. It was a beautiful day, sunny and in the low to mid 80s. Several of our visitors commented on the lovely weather. I don't have any good stories to relate today--I just helped hand out bags of food and water bottles and an item of clothing or two. In all we helped about 30 people and we left a few minutes after 7.
I want to use this journal entry to talk about something else, however. Today is rather significant for Plymouth Street Ministry--we are starting our fifth year! Here's a little bit our our history (from my perspective, of course) as best as I can remember it, and I still have a few notes from our earliest days. In 2011-2012 I had attended a series of church workshops with Pastor David and several other members of Plymouth United Church of Christ. One of the things we discussed were ways for our congregation to be of greater service to the community, both so that we could help others and also so that we ourselves could grow spiritually. We were interested in helping the poor and homeless in the area, but we really didn't know how to find our role, how to be most helpful, or how to get started. One Sunday in the late spring of 2012 Pastor David introduced me to Pastor Mike Henry, who was new to Plymouth, and soon I learned of Mike's experience with street ministries, especially in Chicago. I also learned that Mike wanted to start a street ministry here. Mike sent me an email with some of his personal journal entries which I found fascinating. We had a brief meeting or two, Mike briefed us on street etiquette and safety, and then we got down to business. Mike had driven around town a few times just observing the community, but our first real start--and we consider it our birthday--came on Tuesday, June 19, 2012. At 5pm Pastor Mike, Pastor David, and I ate at the Community Table and talked with the people eating there. Mike introduced himself and us and asked the diners what needs they had that weren't being met. It was a very hot day, and after we finished we asked the Community Table staff if we could hand out cold water bottles in the parking lot. They gave us their blessing so after our meal we handed out many bottles of cold water.
We then drove around town and handed out water bottles to anyone who looked thirsty. People were a bit surprised by these strange folks handing out free water, but many accepted gratefully. We met a Mexican boy on a bicycle. He gladly accepted a cold bottle of water and talked with us. He was in his mid-to-late teens and, although he didn't explicitly state it, he hinted that he was undocumented, but that the US was the only country he really knew--his family had come to the US when he was 5. I now had a human image to think of every time I heard "dreamers" being talked about on the news. We drove around town a little more and I spotted an old woman sitting with her back against the wall of an office building on Barstow Street, holding her knees. Next to her was a garbage bag containing, I assumed, all of her belongings. We found a parking spot and walked over to her and talked with her. She looked very hot and dehydrated and could only speak with a very faint voice. Most people had walked by her without even making eye contact, although she said that one man had given her five dollars. (Afterward I wondered if I were simply walking down Barstow Street if I, too, would have walked by without making eye contact.) She accepted a water bottle, but she still looked so weak that we were worried. I believe we offered to take her to a hospital to get checked out, but she did not want that. Soon a police officer (I don't remember exactly, but David may have phoned) arrived. We talked with the officer. I remember wanting her to be a part of the conversation--after all, it was her welfare we were discussing--but she didn't seem able to talk much. After much effort, the officer convinced her to accept a ride in the squad care to the Sojourner House shelter so she would have a bed for the night and wouldn't have to walk the remaining blocks in the intense heat. By the end of that evening we had handed out about 50 water bottles.
We didn't get a name until August--I noted the new name, Plymouth Street Ministry, in my August 10, 2012 journal entry. Mike had encouraged me to write up a journal after each outing, so I did, and soon others were writing journal entries as well. From its earliest days Plymouth Street Ministry has had a philosophy of being with the people we serve as equals. We met them, and still meet them, in their territory. They don't need to go to an intimidating office and talk to someone across a desk--we are there among them, evening if it means standing for over an hour in below zero temperatures. We have never proselytized, although we will pray with people if they ask for it and initiate it. The people we serve have often been lectured to, preached at, and judged by religious institutions and we don't want to do that. Instead, we share God's love by simply loving them. We try to love all, to help all, and to judge no one, and we know that those we serve are every bit as important as we are in God's eyes, perhaps even more important because of their need.
Over the last four years Plymouth Street Ministry has grown. We now have many volunteers but can always use more. We have started undergoing another name change, to Chippewa Valley Street Ministry, recognizing that in addition to Plymouth UCC we are supported by and have volunteers from many other churches, from the university, and from other institutions. For a few months we will be using both names so the folks can get used to the new name and know that we are the same ministry. So happy fourth birthday, Plymouth Street Ministry! As we start our fifth year may we continue to offer love and compassion, without judgment, to all. We have helped many folks, but, I still think that we who volunteer have grown and learned and gained the most. Nevertheless, I long for the day when we are put out of business because no one needs us anymore. Sadly, I think that day is a long ways off.
As always, please pray for, and care for, the poor.
Tuesday June 16th
As I try to narrow the stories of the evening down, one common theme continues to present itself. That theme is mental illness. So many of the people we've been serving lately seem to be living with some form of mental illness. We don't often inquire about medical or mental health histories and its possible that some people have never had an official diagnosis, but their behaviors suggest that they are dealing with some kind of behavioral health diagnosis. While the street ministry volunteers are not mental health professionals, we do what we can to be a source of resources and support to everyone, even those whose behavior is not what would be considered as normal. We work with people who are delusional, have obsessive tendencies, paranoia, anxiety and so on.
How does mental illness fit into being homeless? It seems that it depends on the individual: we've talked to one young woman who reports having schizophrenia. Her family couldn't deal with her diagnosis or behavior and evicted her from the home. Another young person shared having severe anxiety, depression and was bipolar. She had lost her job, thus losing her insurance, and could not afford continuing care or medication. Some people we talk to are not able to manage their medication so their symptoms fluctuate, others require greater care that is simply not available unless they were institutionalized. Mental illness can affect the perceptions people have of others or their surroundings which will then affect their behaviors. One thing leads to another and often, not much good comes of that.
Pastor Mike recently had an experience with one of our friends with a mental illness that we've known for quite some time. She contacted him after reportedly traveling with some people that may have had some ulterior motives for her. She originally was headed for St. Paul but was left in Eau Claire and she called him for assistance. Pastor Mike spent some time trying to determine her needs and she ultimately ended up in a local hospital in a behavioral health unit.
I certainly do not want to sound negative, I simply want to share with you what we see. I also want to make you aware of challenges of the people we serve. If someone has medications, they must guard them for fear of theft. If they don't have medications, they need to find a way to see a provider and obtain medications or participate in counseling, which is made harder when there is no transportation available. There is no easy answer or solution. That is the only thing that is certain.
Thank you for your interest and support of the street ministry, its volunteers and those we serve. We appreciate you very much!
Karen -- Street Nurse
Plymouth Street Ministry Journal--Friday, June 10, 2016
We (Brent, Jake, Michelle, Mike, and I) met in the Barstow Street municipal parking lot across from the Sojourner House homeless shelter a little after 5:30pm. A severe thunderstorm had just passed through town, dropping the temperature from 90 to the low 70s and leaving downed trees, limbs, and power lines all around. Fortunately, most of the homeless we saw tonight had found cover and stayed dry. One woman, however, was in bare feet and scrubs--she had gotten soaked and the shelter lent her scrubs while her clothes dried. (The shelter had let people in early today, I assume because of the dangerous weather.)
It was a relatively calm evening. We provided a pair of shoes to a man who had asked for them earlier. We also took down the names and shoe sizes of one or two more who needed them. Two people were looking for rides--one to Spooner and one to Duluth, which are both too far away for us
take people. We distributed many bags containing food, water, and a small carton of chocolate milk. Toward the end we had some good news--a man pulled up in a van and talked with Mike. He had been one of our regulars long ago and now has a steady job, a place to live, and a vehicle. He thanked Mike for all of the help Mike and the Street Ministry had provided. In all I think we served around 25 people.
Please pray for, and care for, the poor.
Friday evening was a bit quieter than the last few evenings out, possibly due to the storm that passed through just prior to our arrival. We'd experienced 60 mile-an-hour winds and a driving rain that didn't last long, but was torrential and soaking. I'd wondered as I finished my last hour at work how my street friends would fare.
Surprisingly, hardly anyone was wet. They'd found shelter at the library, at restaurants...it's amazing to me how folks navigate with no vehicle and no home. And even though it happens over and over, I'm still surprised at how our street friends are generous to each other and how they care for one another.
Late in our time together we were approached by a woman who told me she'd just been released from the hospital. She had been staying with friends who accused her of stealing and kicked her out, and somehow she'd ended up in Eau Claire and in the hospital. After a few days of care she'd been released to the streets and directed to the shelter. She was looking for a ride to a town north of Eau Claire to join a carnival where she knew she'd have work. She seemed resigned to staying at the shelter, and while we were unable to assist with a ride, she was gracious and grateful to talk to us and for the small backpack we provided.
We continue to rely on your prayers and support. Thank you for caring for the poor.