Posted by: Philip Rushton | June 15, 2015

Why I Went Public With My Support For The Low-Barrier Shelter In Kelso

A local clergy group that I am apart of wrote a letter last week in support of the low-barrier homeless shelter in Kelso. It was published in The Daily News this past Saturday.  I had a number of conversations about the letter at church the next day. The majority of folks I talked with were encouraged by my public support for the shelter, though a few people graciously voiced their disagreement with my position.

Since letters to the editor are limited to 175 words we were not able to get into all the details about why we took the position we did.  I thought I go into more detail on the blog and create a venue for people to share their thoughts.  I recognize that most of the coverage of the shelter has focused on the problems they have had with crime and drug use, so I understand why people are concerned about the shelter and may question my decision to support them publicly.  Please know that I understand and respect the concerns people have. I volunteer at the shelter every week and so I know first hand that this type of outreach is messy and complicated.

First, here is the letter:

We want to express our gratitude and support for the important work the Love Overwhelming team is doing for the homeless in our community.

We admire their adaptability and perseverance in dealing with a larger amount of needs than expected, especially the alarming number of homeless families with children. Love Overwhelming has served 400 different individuals at their shelter and rest stop so far this year.

We applaud them for their successful coordinated entry program that has helped 48 families and 20 singles either find housing or avoid homelessness this quarter.

It is no wonder this program is being praised at the state level for its effectiveness.

While we understand the concerns about police calls to the shelter, we recognize these clients would otherwise be on our streets, putting both the clients and our community at more risk. The vast majority of LO’s clients are local constituents of Cowlitz County.

We are grateful that the homeless people in our community have compassionate advocates that acknowledge their intrinsic worth and recognize the complexity of poverty.

The Rev. Philip Rushton
The Rev. Eric Atcheson
The Rev. Rene Devantier
The Rev. Kathleen Patton
The Rev. Melinda Gapen
The Rev. Shelley Willem

The main reason we wanted to voice our support for Chuck, Caleb, and the Love Overwhelming team, is because the media coverage of the shelter has been extremely negative. When I arrived at the shelter last week a group of protesters had just left.  They were calling for L.O. to be shut down.  The public anger toward the shelter has clearly increased in recent days.

I do not discount that there have been challenges with violence and crime in the area. The team is very well aware of the challenges they are facing and they have been and are continuing to make some important changes to increase security and make things more manageable.

My concern is that many of the positive aspects of their work have not been given much coverage. Controversy sells papers and makes good headlines. This often creates an imbalance in our public dialogue. We rarely hear the other side of the bad news. For example, L.O.’s coordinated entry program (CEASE) has been given great reviews from the state. They have helped close to 70 families and individuals either get out of or avoid slipping into homelessness in the first quarter of 2015 alone. I think that is an important thing for us to notice.

I have also been concerned about the narrative that L.O. is causing an increase in crime and homelessness in the area. The most recent statistics suggest that the vast majority of L.O.’s clients are from Cowlitz County. To be sure, there has certainly been an increased concentration of these folks in the Kelso area because of the shelter. So in that sense we have seen some movement of homeless within the county. But the idea that we are drawing numerous folks from around the state does not seem to add up to what the numbers are saying.

That being said, I can understand why local emergency services in Kelso are feeling overwhelmed. I have a lot of good friends that work for Cowlitz 2 and the local police department and I empathize with their concerns. They are putting their lives at risk to protect the community, so I know that their objections to the shelter are coming from a place of legitimate concern.

If the majority of LO clients are local, however, then the issue of safety to the community is not a new issue. If these folks were not in the shelter they would still be on our streets causing similar problems regarding drugs and crime. This sounds a bit odd to say, but one could argue that the increase in police calls are a positive thing. I suspect that prior to the shelter opening the same issues were happening, but nobody either noticed or cared enough to call emergency services.  One of my friends, for example, discovered a group of homeless drug addicts camping out in the shed of a foreclosed home next door to him last year.  Shutting down the shelter is not going to solve the problem of drugs and crime.  These folks will be even closer to home for some of us and without anyone monitoring their activity.

I also talked with a chronically homeless man at L.O. last week who told me how many people he has seen die on the streets. Almost everyone around the table gave a knowing nod. Maybe it is a good thing that when emergencies happen to these vulnerable people at L.O., someone cares enough to get them in contact with the services they need.

The other major concern that has been voiced about the shelter is that families with children have been residing in the same place as high risk people like drug addicts. I absolutely empathize with this concern. I feel for the kids when I spend time with them over there. It is not the ideal place for them to be.

However, this is a complicated matter. For one thing, many of the parents of these children are caught up in a high risk lifestyle. These families are often kicked out of other shelters that have stricter guidelines for residency. In light of this, I can understand why L.O. has felt compelled to take them in. It is arguable that being on the streets would be equally, if not more risky for these children. These children are already highly at risk by the nature of their family of origin.

This is a bigger issue we need to deal with as a community. The reason these families have been showing up at L.O. is because they have no other place to go. The clergy group I am a part of has started talking with Chuck about what some longer term solutions might be for these families. I hope that this is part of the conversation as the program evolves.

The last thing that has concerned me has been the way the clients of L.O. have been characterized in our public dialogue.  The clients at L.O. are often lumped together as a group that is lazy and unwilling to take charge of their life. To be sure, there are people there that have made some bad decisions. However, there are a lot of people there because of situations outside of their control.

My experience working at L.O. has opened my eyes to the complexity of poverty.  I met a guy there two weeks ago who is a former marine. He is so messed up with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after fighting our wars that he has slipped into drugs and homelessness. I know numerous people staying there right now who are elderly folks with disabilities. They don’t have enough resources to cover rent costs. I have met numerous people with schizophrenia and intense mental health disorders. I have also met single moms who have been abandoned by husbands who are caught up in drugs. It is high time we recover a more complex view of why people end up at places like L.O.

I would love to keep the conversation going.  I am on a steep learning curve regarding how to best go about helping the homeless in our community.  My hope, however, is that our conversations about complex issues like homelessness can be shaped with more civility, nuance, and balance.


  1. Awesome letter and well-balanced. Thanks for presenting some of the good things happening there.

  2. Thank you.

  3. My somewhat idealistic question is, shouldn’t we, (LCC and other local churches) be looking for ways that we could augment Love Overwhelming by “adopting” or assisting homeless families or individuals and show them our own love overwhelming? Invite them to Wed. nite dinners, home groups, worship, or family meals.
    I know the homeless often have complex issues that are not easily solved just because we show up with a sincere, caring heart. But being exposed to the rougher part of our community’s world might shake us up out of our status quo faith and cause us to seek God for answers. We would grow as well as those we’re trying to help. We’ve tended to institutionalize our Christian acts of love (e.g. Salvation Army, Community House, Love Inc.) and hire specialist/ministers to lead them, and then miss out individually on the challenges and blessings of serving others.

    • I like the word “augment,” Stan. The reality is that there is a benefit to approaching homelessness at the level of public policy and institutional programs because it is such a big problem. We can’t simply leave it up to benevolent “whims” of compassionate individuals – there is benefit to strategic engagement. That being said, there is a danger of developing a complacency by simply hiring out our mandate to care as Christians. One of the proposals we are looking at is having another family shelter that would rotate between churches. Another way we can get in on the “challenges and blessings of serving others” is to help volunteer at these organizations. Thanks for your thoughts Stan!

  4. I have been following the press coverage of LO and am thankful that LO is there for the people that need it. I do have a question that you did not touch on in your blog…does LO allow registered sex offenders to stay at the shelter along with the families and children?

    • Hi Tira,
      Thanks for your comments. Chuck told me a couple weeks back that they do not allow registered sex offenders at the shelter. That was a major rule the introduced after families began showing up at the shelter. L.O. is a “low-barrier” shelter, but it is not a “no-barrier” shelter. One of the myths is the shelter is an “anything goes” type of place. On the contrary, people are regularly kicked out for breaking the rules. Thanks for asking though, it is an important question!

    something to ponder…

  6. Thank you Mr. Rushton – for the “Letter To Editor” in TDN and for this blog. It is about time that we hear from someone who has compassion toward those in need. With all the negative we have read and heard, it is refreshing to see that we do have caring people in Cowlitz County.

  7. thanks for the awesome bl,og. your voice could be heard in the cowlitz county news(unsensored) facebook group where people are just bashing the shelter. i am on there daily as are a few others trying to support it. it is nice to hear your input.

  8. Unfortunately to use some of the shelters services you do not have to give them any sort of identification and sex offenders aka RSO’S have been there, because they use an “honor system” so regardless of weather they “allow” it or not it is happening. Also people who are “kicked out” for bad behavior are allowed back in after a 24 hour period, so there is little insentive for good behavior. In on instance i read a police report where one resident sexually assulted another resident and then a short time later I read another police report with the same person who had sexually assulted the resident agaun at the shelter. It is total madness

    • Thanks for your comment. One of the current changes being implemented right now is a better screening process. The commissioners have given L.O. a list of requested changes to be made and I think this is a good one.

  9. I am one of the people that was protesting and believe the shelter should be closed. No barrier and low barrier have basically the same context when it comes to drugs. To enable a person while they are using drugs is dangerous and not effective in helping them. It only sustains them for keeping their habit going.
    How do I know this? I have a son who was an addict. He was not given free housing except for a Oxford House and he earned his way there. What are these people earning other than your sympathy?
    Many congregations in the area say no to this urban rest stop. That doesn’t mean they dislike homeless people. They dislike the thievery and the cost that comes with it.
    And I have to disagree with your statement that the majority of people who’s children had to stay there are on drugs. Legal photo Identification is not a requirement so how could a screening process be in place that is worth anything. Chuck is not honest in telling you about sex offenders. There is documented proof of Sex offenders being housed there. Possibly actually speak to one of the people that do care about Kelso and do care about the safety of it people is far better than listening to Chuck.
    Don’t get me wrong. I am a Christian, I go to church twice a week and I believe in the bible. The homeless needs help, but to put them in a low barrier shelter may seem like it helps them, but it is like putting a bandage on brain surgery. It only postpones the end result.

    • Thank you for sharing Caren. I appreciate and respect your perspective. I can tell you are speaking from a place of experience and genuine concern.
      I certainly do not question your Christian commitment. We have a general call to help the needy, and part of that call is working out the specifics of how to best do so. There are a lot of perspectives on how to best do this.
      If, in fact, the screening process functions as you have described, then I would agree with your concern. I know that that is one of the issues that is been addressed right now with the commissioners.
      In terms of the “enabling” argument, and the general disagreement with the low-barrier model, I would only respond by saying that there have been a lot of studies done that show how housing first / low barrier shelter models have a very good track record of helping the chronically homeless move past addiction and homelessness.
      Thanks again.

      • I’m sorry, but I have a problem with your last comment. The studies that claim housing first is effective at helping homeless people with substance abuse cite statistics like, “Over the course of a year, the average number of alcoholic beverages consumed per day in 98 people was reduced from 15 to 10.” Does that sound like success to you? The stat is from a study conducted in Seattle a few years ago. The study didn’t include any statistics about how many had stopped consuming illegal substances altogether, nor did it say anything about how many had transitioned from housing first into a self-sustained lifestyle. I know that there are people at love overwhelming who really want to help the homeless, but housing first doesn’t cut it for those with substance abuse issues and for the chronically homeless. As a poster said above, it’s a bandaid. These people are being effectively swept under the rug in the name of ending homelessness. The number of homeless people may shrink, but what does it matter if the number of people on government assistance has grown exponentially? There’s a mindset here that needs to be changed, and it isn’t likely to change when it’s made so easy for these people to maintain their current way of life.

  10. My concern is for the children in the shelter with drug addict parents. Is children’s services contacted when people show up using drugs and have children with them?

  11. Thank you.

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