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One parish’s effort to address homelessness

Posted by | Catholic Charities Communications

Ascension Catholic Parish in Southeast Portland has long offered shelter for the most vulnerable, starting in the 1980s.

Now, the parish is part of the church-based Family Promise network. The old Ascension school cafeteria holds 15 people, large enough to make a real difference yet small enough for the interaction to be meaningful.

Churches in the network shelter families four weeks per year. Ascension groups its four weeks in August so families can have an entire month to stay put. Volunteers make dinner, host overnight, drive, set up, and recruit and train volunteers.

“This shelter provides an opportunity to be part of the solution and it’s a way for parishioners to get started in ministry to people experiencing homelessness,” said Sharon Grigar, longtime pastoral associate at Ascension. “It helps engage parishioners outside themselves. We have so many parishioners who are very caring.”

In general, families are given shelter for 90 days, usually enough time to help them find affordable housing at a site like one of Catholic Charities’ two dozen buildings.

It’s not an easy ministry.

“But the people still need love,” Grigar said with a winsome smile. “It helps give people dignity. It’s what we’re called to do. If we don’t do it, who will?”

Citing the passages in Matthew 25, in which Jesus explains that when we care for the needy we care for him, Grigar said: “It’s a Christian responsibility. It’s messy but it’s important and it’s worth it.”

Ascension is the only Oregon Catholic parish so far that offers space through Family Promise. But it teams up with The Madeline Parish in Northeast Portland, which sends volunteers and other support to its Catholic neighbor to the southeast.

The Ascension parish hall served as an emergency weather shelter this winter. The former school cafeteria is a family shelter in August and is used by a renter during the school year. (Korin Kanzler/Catholic Charities)

Marylee Stahl volunteered at an earlier version of the Ascension shelter decades ago. She was part of the group that invited the national organization Family Promise to restart the shelter in 2022. Now, Stahl is secretary of the board for Family Promise of Metro East Portland.

Every participating church has a coordinator. For Ascension, it’s Stahl.

“Getting volunteers is really really hard,” said Stahl. Even though overnight hosting is the easiest gig, few people want to do it.

“It’s hard to get people out of their comfort zones,” said Stahl. “But it’s good to teach people in the pews who the homeless are.”

Stahl said volunteers are usually surprised at how gracious homeless families are.

“When you sit down to have a meal with someone it makes it real,” Stahl said.

In one family of six, the dad worked full time but lost his job and eventually lost housing. The family stayed in the Family Promise shelter for four months and worked with the organization’s housing specialist. The mother was able to enter a program for people with disabilities. Eventually, they found an apartment. Now, the dad wants to volunteer.

Another mom with a young son needed shelter and childcare because she worked nights. Working with Family Promise, she got a full-time day job and housing.

A family seeking refuge from an unstable government in Venezuela is getting shelter, and Spanish-speakers from Ascension are helping the family get stabilized.

“We obviously have a huge problem in Portland with homelessness,” Stahl said. “You can’t pretend it’s not there. This is one little thing you can do to make a difference, even without spending money.”

Stahl is attracted to the ecumenical nature of the project.

The Community of Christ Church at Northeast 48th and Couch hosts a day drop-in center for homeless families year-round. There, children can read and make art while parents work on resumes and job applications.

Leaders of Grant Park Church at Northeast 34th and Knott keep their overnight space open all year in case no other churches step forward for a given week.

“I really love getting to meet people of other faiths and working together on something,” said Stahl, a child abuse prevention specialist with Lifeworks Northwest. “It’s doing with them what I think Christ is asking us to do. Our journey is to try to be Christ to others.”



Severe weather shelter

During the winter that just ended, Ascension Catholic Parish in Southeast Portland offered space for a Multnomah County emergency shelter. The location was Tony Rinella Hall, the parish’s main non-liturgical event space.

The parish signed on just in time for the mid-January snow, freeze and ice. Almost 100 people found warm shelter at the parish Jan. 19-24.

The county provides staff, volunteers, food, water and bedding. During this storm, a record number of people were sheltered. Several Catholic Charities employees helped staff the shelter.

Families clearly matter at Ascension. The parish participates annually in the Catholic Charities Traveling Crib collection, with parishioners giving a truckload of diapers, wipes and baby clothes for needy households.