Catholic Sentinel photos by Clarice Keating
Sara Wise helps Maria Ramage try on a coat donated to the parish’s shelter ministry.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Clarice Keating
Sara Wise helps Maria Ramage try on a coat donated to the parish’s shelter ministry.
GRESHAM — The scene still brings tears to Mary Hay’s eyes.

As she stood in the parish hall kitchen, washing dishes, the St. Henry volunteer gazed out the window at darkening skies and pouring rain. It was a Tuesday, the day St. Henry Church opens a warming shelter to serve people experiencing homelessness in East County.

Standing in the parking lot was a regular shelter visitor, a man who struggles to survive with severe brain damage sustained as a victim of a hit-and-run.

The man was bloody and soaked.

Hay rushed out and ushered him into the warmth of the hall. While volunteers hustled around to gather first aid, warm clothes and a hot meal, Dan Booth sat down and gently began washing the man’s feet. Booth, another shelter visitor, was applying salve to the man’s feet as Hay returned.

The scene, which evoked Jesus’ humble act of washing the apostles’ feet, was one of those moments that inspires Hay to dedicate hours of her free time to the shelter.

“These are the things that really change us all,” she said.
Every Tuesday, volunteers at St. Henry open their parish hall at 1 p.m. and welcome anywhere from 40 to 70 visitors. Anyone can drop in to pick up warm clothes and socks, get a cup of coffee, take a nap, and eat a warm meal before the shelter closes at 6:30 p.m. When temperatures drop below the mid-30s, the church stays open all night.

Along with three other Gresham churches, First Baptist, East Hill Foursquare and Anawim Fellowship at Peace Mennonite, St. Henry is part of a network that creates a day-shelter system to serve people without homes.

“There’s a misconception that there aren’t homeless people in Gresham,” said Sara Wise, the parish employee who manages the shelter ministry. “Some people don’t want to see them or they want to pretend they don’t exist.”

As a result, few places exist within Gresham city limits where campers can rest without being asked by law enforcement to move along. Public restrooms are also in short supply.

Wise says St. Henry’s shelter is place where homeless men and women can come and “have a safe, warm place to simply ‘be.’”

Shelter visitors often know and look out for one another. Not all are homeless; some seek companionship or a hot meal.

Booth, 53, is a regular. Tending to the suffering man’s feet was reflexive, because Booth worked for many years as a caregiver. He has a degree in information technology, but has had trouble finding work. Last year, he got a job at UPS, but lost it when he wasn’t able to keep up with the physically taxing labor.

Though the job market may be better elsewhere, Booth stays in Gresham to be near his daughter.

Day-to-day survival for many people who lives on the streets is stressful and exhausting. Without money for public transportation, many walk miles to find a free, hot meal.

When George Johnson, 39, and his girlfriend fell on hard times and lost their home at the Oregon Coast, they traveled east to Portland in hopes of a better job market.

Most days they walk 10 or more miles in search of a meal and odd jobs here and there. When they camp at night, George hears coyotes outside of their tent.

“We can’t expect to have everything right away,” George said. “We’re looking at this like an adventure and slowly moving forward.”

In the meantime, George is thankful for churches like St. Henry that offer food and other assistance.

“They don’t just open their doors, they open up their hearts,” he said.

Donald Gagnon has a soft spot for homeless veterans. He’s a Navy vet who served during the Vietnam War and retired after 24 years to work for the Department of Homeland Security. He keeps up-to-date with veterans assistance programs to refer shelter visitors when he can.

In 2009, Gagnon stopped working after being diagnosed with liver problems associated with exposure to Agent Orange, so he started volunteering at the shelter.
“During my first year, I had a hard time understanding why they didn’t do something for themselves,” Gagnon said.

Then, as he learned more about people’s lives and struggles, he stopped judging.

People of any background, religious or not, are welcomed at any of the shelters in the network. At St. Henry’s, Gagnon doesn’t push Catholicism, but instead sets out small reminders of faith, like prayers or a crucifix.

St. Henry parishioners support the ministry through donations. Non-Catholics volunteer and donate, too.

Cory Williamson has been helping out for three years. The former restaurateur is known for her ability to make a little go a long way when the ministry’s cupboard is bare. She’s also the mother of Shane Bemis, Gresham’s mayor, whose recent birthday party was a fundraiser for the shelter.

Most of the people who visit the shelter are seeking “a hand up, not a hand out,” Williamson said, and she’s glad to be someone who can lend a hand.