While there’s a lot of discussion these days about Yakima’s homeless situation, it’s not new.
For 82 years, the Union Gospel Mission in Yakima has worked with the area’s poor, offering temporal and spiritual assistance, starting with an old tavern on South Front Street to its current operation, which includes a former North First Street motel, a campground on the Naches River and a youth center in a converted school.
Yakima’s Union Gospel Mission was born out of the Great Depression, which did not spare Yakima County. Some estimate that about half the workforce was either unemployed or forced to work reduced hours with low wages. Schoolteachers were essentially paid with IOUs that could only be cashed in if the county had funds to put aside for their payroll.
Farm workers were earning $9 a week, after working 60 hours, while rail workers were able to make $16.50 a week. (That would be, respectively, $161.90 and $296.82 when adjusted for inflation).
At this time North Front Street near the train depot, now home to apartments and eateries, became a gathering place for people with nowhere else to go who often turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism.
In the spring of 1936, five men — Ed Dahl, Wilbur Lynn, C.W. “Ollie” Olson, Burt Thompson and Al Kocher — met at the First Presbyterian Church to discuss the situation on North Front Street and what could be done about it.
Kocher suggested establishing a rescue mission to help the homeless in the area and seeking to become an affiliate of the International Union of Gospel Missions.
With $3 in silver coins donated by Dahl, Thompson and Olson, Kocher agreed to manage the new mission, with the other men serving as its board of directors. The group rented the building at 21 S. Front St., a former tavern.
The first floor was turned into a soup kitchen, with the second floor used as dormitory space for men who had nowhere else to go. And with support from local churches, the mission opened in September 1936.
Yakima’s Union Gospel Mission offered food and shelter to those who needed it, along with sermons preached by Kocher and others. For many, the combination of calls to religious repentance, food and shelter helped them turn their lives around.
Among those was Jimmy Wahlbrink, a former teacher and government worker who described himself as a skid-row drunk. But hearing a sermon preached by Dr. Charles Ghormley of First Presbyterian Church at the mission led Wahlbrink to give up drinking and turn his life around. In 1939, he became the second superintendent of the mission, a post he filled until his death in 1964.
His rise from alcoholic to superintendent of the mission that he credited with saving his life made Wahlbrink a popular speaker among Gospel Mission groups.
During this time, the mission grew, and moved a short distance north to a former brewery.
The mission saw further expansion under Roger Phillips, who served as its superintendent from 1968 to 1996. A former building contractor in California, Phillips felt drawn to working in rescue missions, and came to Yakima after his father, who also worked with rescue missions, and others told him there was a need for leadership.
On Phillips’ watch, the mission expanded to offering support for families after having to bed a stranded family on the mission chapel’s floor. The building that now houses the mission’s Olde Lighthouse Shoppe thrift store was purchased and converted into a family shelter for the mission.
The mission initially opened a dental and podiatric clinic, later expanding it to a full clinic in 1995, addressing pressing needs among the indigent. Phillips also opened the Lost Creek Village camp along the Naches River, giving underprivileged children the opportunity to go to camp in the summer.
The mission’s headquarters expanded again with the purchase of the C.M. Holtzinger Building on West Yakima Avenue at North Second Avenue in 1986. It also acquired the old Madison School on South Fourth Street for a youth center it operates to this day.
On May 1, 1990, a welder’s torch sparked a fire that destroyed the Holtzinger building, and knocked the mission back on its heels momentarily.
Trusting that things would work out, Phillips and others set out to find a new location for expanded operations. But they faced opposition from people who were not thrilled with the idea of poor people being helped in their neighborhoods.
Neighborhood opposition thwarted plans to build on property east of downtown near the Yakima Greenway. Plans to buy the old Yakima Inn on North First Street also faced an uphill battle.
When the mission looked at the motel and adjoining property in the 1300 block of North First Street, business owners in the area complained that the mission’s presence — and its clientele — would drive customers away, and give people coming into the city a bad first impression.
But the mission won approval, due in part to one local attorney arguing that the mission would help clean up the neighborhood.
The mission purchased the motel in 1993, and formally opened its doors on May 1, 1996, six years after fire destroyed the downtown building.
Today, the mission provides vocational training, including its own catering service and recycling operation, as well as food assistance, emergency housing and medical care.
It Happened Here is a weekly history column by Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Donald W. Meyers. Reach him at 509-577-7748 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @donaldwmeyers.