A young, somber woman pushes through the heavy double doors at Union Gospel Mission on North First Street in Yakima. She looks around tentatively and shyly steps up to the front desk. With a low voice, she explains that she’s just gotten out of prison, she can’t find work, and she needs help.
The woman behind the desk looks into her eyes and kindly says, “I’ve been there too and not that long ago, but we can help you, just like they helped me. You’ve come to the right place. Let’s start with a meal and go from there.”
Michele Campos, 43, is the receptionist at the Union Gospel Mission. She is an enthusiastic woman with a kind smile and a story to tell. With decades of criminal behavior and extensive jail time behind her, Campos wanted to turn her past mistakes into something good.
After being released from prison in 2010, Campos found it impossible to find a job. Her lengthy criminal history prevented her from qualifying for many of the positions she applied for.
“The last time I was in prison, I promised God I would make a change,” she said. “But it was hard to make good on that promise when I couldn’t find a job and make a fresh start.”
Through a connection at her church, Campos heard about an opening at Union Gospel Mission, a place she was familiar with from her time in prison. Mentors from the Union Gospel Mission’s New Life Program would offer classes and training to the inmates.
“As soon as I heard about the job, I knew it was for me, because I can relate to everyone who comes in,” she said.
The tricky part was actually getting the job. But after going through the interview process and meeting with Executive Director Rick Phillips, Michelle was hired.
“Rick said to me, I care about who you are today, not who you were yesterday,” she said. Now every day, no matter who walks through the doors and what story they have to tell, Michele greets them with compassion and a wealth of information on how to get back on their feet.
“We can help,” she says with confidence.
Poverty and homelessness are real problems in Yakima County, with an estimated 60,000 people living at or below the federal poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Yakima County’s poverty rate of 21.8 percent is considerably higher than Washington’s rate of 12 percent and the national rate of 13.8 percent. According to this year’s “Point in Time” report, produced by the Homeless Network of Yakima County, 996 individuals were identified as homeless in Yakima County. That’s a 12.3 percent increase from the 2011 report.
Another indication of poverty is the number of requests for state services.
Last year more than 107,000 Yakima County residents (45 percent of the population) received some form of economic service from the Department of Social and Health Services, such as cash assistance, food benefits and social services to help people meet basic needs.
Yet families in Yakima are still going without food, shelter, basic clothing and medical care.
And that’s why agencies like Sunrise Outreach, Union Gospel Mission, the Homeless Network and dozens of other local nonprofit and church organizations are stepping up to address the varied and complex needs of the homeless, working poor and impoverished.
“We realized very early on that the needs in our community were much larger than what one church or group could provide,” Sunrise Outreach Executive Director Dave Hanson said.
Sunrise Outreach, formed in 2010, is a humanitarian-based community development organization addressing homelessness and poverty in Yakima County. The organization provides temporary and transitional housing, multiple feeding programs including a food pantry, soup kitchen and community garden as well as extreme weather shelters for homeless men and women.
Sunrise Outreach mobilizes hundreds of volunteers each month to distribute 8,000 sandwiches all over the county. Churches and local businesses donate labor and food to make the sandwiches, which are then handed out to Yakima’s most hungry.
“I don’t want to just give a person a sandwich and a hotel room for the night,” Hanson said. “We can’t wash our hands of it figuring we did a good deed. It’s about understanding why they are hungry and in the situation they are in. When we build a relationship, we can make a lasting impact.”
The Union Gospel Mission in Yakima has spent the past 75 years developing programs and services to serve both the short- and long-term needs of the homeless and working poor.
The mission has capacity for 200 people to sleep in emergency overnight shelter, and it can serve 500 hot meals every day of the year. But one meal and a single night’s sleep doesn’t end homelessness, so services don’t end there either.
“What we are finding is that housing isn’t the only answer. It’s part of the equation for sure, but we have to help people make life changes and create opportunities for education, training and skill-building,” Union Gospel Mission Executive Director Rick Phillips said.
The mission has developed a comprehensive service model that has evolved to meet the complex needs of the people it serves. It operates several industries, including a food program, the Olde Lighthouse Shoppe (an antique and gift shop in downtown Yakima), New Hope Catering and the Madison House, a youth community center. The mission also provides a 12-month live-in program for men and women called New Life and a free medical and dental clinic operated by local volunteer dentists and physicians as well as medical students from Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences.
The distribution center is a multi-use facility at the mission, accepting donated items including clothing, furniture, household goods and food items. The center also operates a recycling program that helps keep hands busy and provides added revenue to cover the cost of operations. The mission’s catering company and the Olde Lighthouse Shoppe provide skill-building — and ultimately employment opportunities — for people who lack job experience or formal education. The food pantry and medical/dental clinic are not just available to the homeless but also to the working poor.
“There are many in our community who are one unexpected expense or medical issue away from homelessness even though they go to work every day,” Phillips said. “The food boxes and access to free medical and dental care make a tangible difference in helping families maintain independence.”
The Madison House, along with other before- and after-school programs around the Valley, gives school-age children a safe and fun environment in which to learn and grow. This can help prevent gang interaction and helps keep kids in school.
For people wanting to stay long-term at the mission, a volunteer program is available requiring tenants to pitch in around the grounds, cleaning or helping out in the warehouse.
“If you are going to be here, you have to be working toward helping yourself,” Phillips said. “This gives people a tangible way to be useful, to earn something and sometimes to build a skill they didn’t have before.”
The New Life Program provides training opportunities and mentoring to help people find living-wage jobs and transition into independent living.
“It’s important for people in our community to know that there’s hope,” Phillips said. “There’s hope for kids and families in our community, a hope for a future generation and a hope for people who have lost their way.”
For Campos, every day is a new opportunity to impart that hope to everyone she comes into contact with, whether it’s the women she is mentoring in the New Life Program or a stranger she interacts with on the phone.
“My heart is for women who want to change, and I feel like being here I can show that a transformation really is possible. I’m proof of that,” she said. “If I’ve gone through something or overcome something and I can use that experience to help someone, then that’s what it’s all about.”