The unassuming white doors in front of Madrona Grace Presbyterian Church lead to Julia’s Place, a homeless shelter for two-parent families in Seattle. Photo by Sarah Radmer
The unassuming white doors in front of Madrona Grace Presbyterian Church lead to Julia’s Place, a homeless shelter for two-parent families in Seattle. Photo by Sarah Radmer
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When you think of a church’s basement, you probably expect it to be full of old, broken pews or spare Sunday-school supplies. But the basement of Madrona Grace Presbyterian Church (832 32nd Ave.) is full of tents.

On any given night, up to seven families or 22 people are living in those tents as part of the Julia’s Place shelter. 

Keeping families together

The shelter began three years ago after church pastor Mark Zimmerly offered the space to house homeless families through a partnership with Mary’s Place.

The Church of Mary Magdalene founded Mary’s Place (1830 Ninth Ave.) 15 years ago, but it is now its own separate nonprofit, explained executive director Marty Hartman.

Mary’s Place has a two-pronged approach. The first are its nighttime shelters, of which it has four, including Julia’s Place. The other aspect is its day center. While their kids are at school, parents can access meals, showers, laundry, supplies, phones, medical care and employment and housing services.

Before anyone could live in Madrona Grace’s 103-year-old space it had to be renovated. The room had previously housed a community center with a roller skating rink and a day care, but it had been closed for about seven years when the Julia’s Place project began.

It took about six months to fully renovate the area. Church members took out the carpet, repainted and installed a new kitchen. A year later, they added a bathroom with a shower. The money for the renovation came from local area churches and a family foundation.

The space features a large kitchen, dining room, living room, multiple bathrooms and one shower, a play area and the sleeping room. Early on, the church made the decision to not build any barriers in the sleeping room and, instead, put in large family-size tents.

The tents “were an easy solution, and it turns out, the kids think they’re really fun,” Zimmerly said. The tents give families a sense of their own private space, which is rare in homeless shelters.

Despite language and cultural barriers, the kids “kind of act like one big family,” Zimmerly said. He often sees them playing video games or Ping Pong in the recreation area.

The shelter is named after Julia Pritt, who was a member of the church for about a year before she passed away. Her family foundation donated money to get the shelter off the ground.

“She had a deep concern for homeless women and children,” Zimmerly said.

One of the benefits of Julia’s Place is that it’s cost-effective because of the volunteers and the donated space, Hartman said: “It’s just been an incredible blessing.”

Julia’s is open every night. Typically, five to six families are there at a time, with up to about 22 people total. Many families are new immigrants from Eastern Africa and Latin America, and they tend to have larger families, Zimmerly said.

Mary’s Place requested that Madrona Grace use the space as a two-parent shelter because they’re so uncommon in the city, Zimmerly said. Many shelters cater to homeless women and children or homeless men, but not both.

“Julia’s Place is still one of the only places where intact families can go,” Zimmerly said.

Depending on the individual shelter’s policies, a boy as young as 12 years old can be separated from his mother if they are homeless.

“I just can’t tell you the relief and gratitude that they share with us every day that their families are safe, warm, together and alive,” Hartman said. “They’re able to move forward in work and school before they find permanent housing.”

Many residents stay there for about two months, but some have stayed for as long as nine months. Families really appreciate the shelter, which is more spacious than many others in the city, Zimmerly said: “Every time I’m down there, they have very good community spirit.

“Any time people are homeless, they’ve experienced a certain level of trauma,” he said. “So stability is really the first thing they need to process that trauma effectively. And so I see children being a lot happier, parents looking a lot more relaxed and, overall, families just feeling and expressing a good deal more hope than they had before.”

Expanding with the need

The congregation was “enthusiastically supportive” about the opportunity, Zimmerly said: “It really felt in this congregation that the Holy Spirit was at work.”

When the church initially planned Julia’s Place, members hoped that other area church congregations would volunteer as evening and overnight staff. The evening staff comes for a few hours in the afternoon and provides dinner or groceries, while the overnight staff stays at the shelter to provide security and any emergency assistance.

So far, the church haven’t had as many other churches volunteer, but there has been strong support from community volunteers, especially the Madrona Moms group. Now, an intern from Mary’s Place stays there four nights a week. The intern is usually a formerly homeless woman who is able to live on-site for free.

To add space for another intern, Zimmerly has partnered with Seattle Central College’s Center for Wood Technology, which is building a tiny house to go on the church’s property. Madrona Grace has provided the wood, and the students are volunteering their time. Zimmerly expects the house to be done by the end of the year or during the first few months of 2015.

He also dreams of expanding this tiny house project to every church parking lot in the city.

Despite being directly below the church, the shelter isn’t Christian-based. On Sundays, the residents have the option of coming up to worship, Zimmerly said. However, many families are Muslim or not religious, and even those who are Christian, there’s often language barriers or different worshipping styles, he said: “We’re not doing this to proselytize.”

The shelter does fulfill one of the church’s main missions of serving those in need, though. “This is a reminder that the space we feel we’ve been given does not belong to us,” Zimmerly said. “It belongs to God, and we use that for the purposes that we think God would have us use them.”

Moving forward, Zimmerly hopes to keep the space sustainable. It costs the church $15,000 a year to pay its utilities. So far, it has been able to handle those bills with some outside help, but in the future, it may start doing more fundraising, he said.

Hartman hopes more churches open their doors to opportunities like this. “The goal is, no child sleeps outside,” she said.

Zimmerly and the Madrona Grace congregation are also focused on maintaining Julia’s Place and supporting Mary’s Place’s efforts.

“[Mary’s Place] continues to grow and expand to meet the rising need of the homeless population in Seattle,” he said. “From the perspective of our congregation, anything we can do to help encourage other churches to embark on similar projects would be good.”

Julia’s Place needs donations of diapers, breakfast cereal and warm-weather clothing for all ages, Hartman said. Financial contributions for its utilities bills are also welcome. For more information, visit madronagrace.org/ministries/julias-place.

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