• Jeremy Clark

Our "outreach" struggle during the Covid-19 outbreak

More than 24 years ago Mark and a couple volunteers started walking the streets of downtown Spokane in order to build authentic relationships with youth experiencing homelessness. This was how Cup of Cool Water began walking alongside youth in our city so, naturally, outreach has always been an important part of what we do. How often we’ve done outreach over the years has depended greatly on staff and volunteer availability.

We reinvigorated our outreach efforts in February this year. In March we went out two Mondays in a row and had significant interactions with youth, simply handing out sack lunches or water and having a conversation. There was genuine appreciation from the youth we saw, these spontaneous encounters felt like a blessing. The youth shared openly about their situation, sharing good news and bad news and in some cases we saw youth we hadn’t seen in months. I came back to the drop-in center both weeks and felt so encouraged, realizing quickly that this was an aspect of the ministry we had been missing for some time.

At the time it seemed as though this renewed focus would be a welcome addition to the services we’d been providing at the drop-in center and through our Life Skills program.

At the time, we had no idea that the pandemic would totally derail our outreach efforts. Slowly we heard about cases across the world and when the first cases started appearing in Spokane County, we realized we would need to make adjustments to our programs at Cup.

In an unprecedented move from the Washington State Government, restaurants and public gatherings have been suspended till at least the end of March. Once the order came through, we decided that it was time for us to close our “drop-in” periods for a time. This was a blow for me. The bulk of my interactions with youth have taken place in the drop-in center. Sharing a meal, talking about life or playing a board game, we have laughed together and mourned together. Doing daily life with people over the years has been life giving to me, the staff, volunteers and certainly the youth we serve. Many of our volunteers and staff members fall within the vulnerable population category and we felt it would be negligent if we risked exposing them to the contagion.

When the announcement came out, we had the weekend to think it over. We came to the conclusion that the best option for serving the youth would be to continue to do outreach in the city, handing out sack lunches, hygiene items and most importantly of all, encouragement. On the Monday following our state issuing the “Stay Home. Stay Safe” order we went on outreach, unsure of whether we could do anything at the bus plaza where we knew we would see youth. We saw several youth and the only real difference was that we didn’t hug them or shake hands with people we had met for the first time. These violations of common courtesy felt awkward and impersonal, but we did our best not to jeopardize future outreach by breaking the rules.

We changed our strategy later that week. We got on bikes, one carrying a trailer containing hot meals, cliff bars, bottled water, sandwiches, hygiene items, underwear and socks. We decided to spread out the area to include Brown’s Addition, so we made a loop around Coeur d’Alene park where we saw one guy who had aged out, we gave him a sandwich and we moved along. We made our way to the bus plaza like we had on the previous days and struck up a conversation with a young man we knew well. He was working at a car wash and living at the Oxford recovery house with other men in recovery.

We quickly realized we had a problem; people swarmed our cart and began asking for food. Elderly people, middle aged folks, youth within our age range. They all saw our cart of food and as they saw that we had abundance. We were unable to manage the crowd, and before we could send people away, an officer came over to us and kindly asked us to move along so we would not encourage people to congregate. We rode our bikes across the street and 6 people followed us. The folks that followed us told us that serving locations have been severely limited; there was a sense of urgency in the way they communicated about the scarcity of resources in the city. At that point we had to tell them that we only serve youth and we can’t offer them much. They understood and we gave them a cliff bar before we moved along. We only saw 4 more youth while we were out. We came back to the drop-in center feeling dissatisfied with our experience and brainstormed how to make the necessary adjustments. We decided that we would forego bringing the trailer and simply ride bikes with backpacks full of items to hand out.

That Thursday we left the drop-in center feeling hopeful. We made a plan of where we wanted to go. We decided that we would essentially go the same route we went on Wednesday and add in a quick stop at the Canon Shelter. We went over by the shelter and saw one young man we know from the drop-in center. Without the trailer behind me, I felt much more hopeful. We started heading to an area the youth call “Blue’s corner.” It is the corner of Howard and Sprague and because the only thing on that block is a big parking lot, no one gets loitering charges for sitting there. As we headed in that direction, we saw a young woman we hadn’t seen in months. She said she had been clean for 4 months, we rejoiced with her and we moved along soon after.

As we continued riding through downtown, we saw many youths we knew and as we saw more people, we felt more encouraged and purposeful. We saw one young man we know well. He was at the tail end of an altercation with his ex-girlfriend and I started talking to him. He was so discouraged. He was feeling shame because he drank and was violent toward his ex; he was feeling so little self-worth because he can’t take a shower and he said he didn’t know where God was in all of this. I gave him some words of encouragement and prayed with him and we parted ways.

We saw at least 10 more youth while we were out and the resounding feeling was gratitude. Gratitude that we are out here in the midst of a crisis, listening to their daily struggles and doing what little we can to speak hope and life. Our call is to be a light in the darkness. It is good to provide food and necessary items, but it is our conviction that what we are truly providing is hope. Each youth matters to us, and we get to share that they matter to Jesus as well. We are here while we can do what we can because this is our call, to share the love of Jesus with youth who are experiencing homelessness.

We’ve had a hiatus the last two months from doing outreach because of the pandemic and all of the restrictions associated with it, but we are back at it. We are doing outreach on Mondays and Fridays and although each day is different, some days we see 5 people and some days we see 20, we see it as such a valuable way to make contact with youth, to bring them hope and to continue to share the love of Jesus. One young man we know well told us last Friday that he is so appreciative we are doing outreach again because it reminds him and others that they are not alone.

We’re learning to be flexible, to do what we can and to persevere the relationships we have with youth, and to make sure they know they are not alone. Although we have a plan to reopen all of our programs soon, until then, we are grateful that we get to connect with youth we haven’t seen in several months through Monday and Friday outreach! Thank you all for your support and prayer during this time.

If you are a current volunteer and are interested in joining us for outreach on Monday or Fridays, you can email Cecilia at Cecilia@cupofcoolwater.org.