VANCOUVER, Washington – My bike recently broke down in this city along the Columbia River and a friend said, "You need to take it to Wheel Deals bike shop because they're doing something really different."
I said, "How different can it be?" But then I found out when I discovered it's part of a movement to reach out to the down-and-out people in Vancouver and lift them up.
The Bible says the poor you will have with you always, but that doesn't mean each individual poor person has to stay that way. People across this city are banding together to get some of their poorest out of poverty permanently. What they're doing could become a model for communities across America.
A big part of that effort is Open House Ministries, which fills up a huge city block with a massive shelter, as well as the bike shop, a coffee shop and a thrift store called "Second Hand Solutions."
Even Addicts need Bikes…and Grace
It's in a part of town that can be scary.
"We have a very, very bad neighborhood," said Pastor Mark Roskam, who is both Open House's chaplain and manager of Wheel Deals.
He explained, "There's a lot of heroin, a lot of methamphetamine, a lot of addiction. And one thing even addicted people want is bicycles. And bicycle repair and a little bit of help or a little bit of grace."
Renee Stevens used to be one of those addicts.
"Nineteen years ago I showed up at Open House Ministries," she told CBN News. "I was addicted to drugs. I was abused. I was trying to be divorced. I was running from domestic violence."
She fought her way through it all as she sheltered at Open House and went through their programs aimed at pulling people out of dire circumstances.
It Takes Many Hands…Many Solutions
Now Stevens is Open House's executive director. She's quick to acknowledge, though, that Open House alone can't do the job.
"Not one agency can solve all the problems of homelessness, hunger, children without parents, poverty," Stevens said. "And so I think experts in each field need to collaborate together for one good common cause."
People and organizations all over Vancouver are stepping up to put their expertise, their time and their resources into lifting these people up and out once and for all, whether it's in food, health, housing, transportation, banking, training or educating.
Helping 'the Least, the Last & the Lost'
Like Matt Edmonds' New Heights Church asked this question: "'Who are the least, the last and the lost?' And that group of individuals often find themselves uninsured."
Edmonds continued, "If you had no insurance, then you had no doctor. And so the church said, 'we have a lot of doctors and nursing staff in our church. So let's open up a free clinic for the uninsured.'"
And now the New Heights Medical Clinic offers both medical and dental care to many who might not be able to get it any other way.Edmonds himself is at the Clark County Food Bank, working with some 40 pantries and agencies and thousands of volunteers to make sure folks are getting food who can't afford it.
One source is generous area grocery stores, which donate about 2,000,000 pounds of food a year.
"What we say about that program is that 'we find food without a home and get it to homes without food,'" Edmonds commented.
The food bank and its allies are looking at ways to change those situations of poverty.
Food for the Body and the Mind
Edmonds says they ask themselves, "'How can we as a food bank give them the tools and resources necessary to move them out of this place of food-insecurity?'"
So while they're feeding them food, they're also feeding them transformational knowledge in classes.
"We teach them how to shop for healthy, inexpensive food," Edmonds explained. "We teach how to make a food budget, how to stick to a food budget."
And the food bank transformed itself to help an area in Vancouver known as Fruit Valley that had no grocery stores.
"if a family needed to go get fresh produce or fresh groceries, they'd have to take two bus transfers to get to the nearest grocery store," Edmonds said.
Can't Wait for Someone Else
The food bank decided it had to do something.
"We can't just sit back and be idle and wait for someone else to jump in and serve people in need," Edmonds insisted.
They opened up a pantry handing out food three times a week in a strip of enterprises all doing what they can for those in Vancouver most in need of help.
"Lighthouse Credit Union is offering financial services and banking services to people in poverty," Edmonds explained. "Right next door is our food pantry, offering food assistance to people in poverty. Right next door to that is a housing ministry that's offering housing assistance to people in poverty."
There's even a convenience store in the strip aiming to start stocking many more healthy and nutritious foods.
And next to that is a newly-constructed massive industrial kitchen that will soon be a training school for many jobless people to become chefs and cooks.
How to Handle People who can't Handle Money
Brett Bryant is a banker who wanted to help the same folks through Lighthouse Credit Union because they often can't get financial services anywhere else. And with reason.
As Bryant put it, "How can you loan to low-income people and get paid back and have it not kind of shipwreck the credit union?"
But Lighthouse has a resource center and is training these folks.
"Fundamental things like budgeting and what kind of insurance to buy and how to use credit appropriately," the banker said.
And that makes trustworthy customers.
Bryant explained, "You start seeing transformation in people's behaviors."
From being Homeless to Serving the Homeless
Lori Richardson and her husband were transformed by both Lighthouse and Open House Ministries.
"So me and my husband were homeless, on the streets," she told CBN News.
Open House sheltered them and Lighthouse Credit Union helped them dig out of poverty and get their own home. Now they both work at Open House and help the homeless all day long.
"It's amazing how you can touch lives and put hope into somebody just over a cup of coffee or a blanket," Richardson said.
Open House doesn't just offer shelter, but also drug and alcohol counseling, classes, job training, and actual jobs in the thrift store, coffee shop, and bike shop. All to transform.
Stevens said of these programs, "They're restructuring your life, restructuring your habits, restructuring your boundaries."
Mother & Daughter both Aided
The shelter and programs at Open House lifted teenage Alexis and her mother out of despair.
"We were homeless and my mother was struggling with addiction," Alexis told CBN News.
Her mother got off the drugs at the shelter, took classes in parenting and job training, and now works at the thrift shop.
"It helped her open up her mind to see what life is without addiction," Alexis said, adding, "Even though it's a shelter, I love living here. It helped me understand what not to do in life and what to do."
Stevens pointed out all these ministries and places in Vancouver are giving struggling folks steps to measure progress and success.
Stevens said some of these might be, "Are they getting housing? Are they gaining employment? Are they getting their children back? Are they off drugs?"
'God is Changing Lives here'
Edmonds says of all these good works put together, "It's lifting people up and moving them to a better place. These type of collaborations can and ought to be happening, not just here in Clark County, but across our nation."
Chaplain Roskam back at the Wheel Deals bike shop told CBN News, "We have non-believing partners and believing partners. But even people who are skeptical about Christianity cannot argue with the results, that God is changing lives here."
Stevens added, "So as long as it's God-breathed, any town could do this."
But it takes many people doing a lot of volunteering. The thing is, though, Clark County Food Bank's Edmonds says there's a rich reward in doing it.
Volunteering can be Thrilling
"When you give back to people who need a little bit of help, it just does something special within you," he commented.
All this is personal to banker Bryant, who himself fought his way out of intergenerational poverty.
He stated, "Watching people transform from a place of no hope and despair to a place where they say, 'ya know, I might have a future after all,' is thrilling to me."
Standing outside the Lighthouse Credit Union, Bryant asked that people consider what they'll leave behind that's permanent.
"It's certainly not the stuff you have," he argued. "It's the legacy you leave, it's the impact you leave. It's the ripple that goes through the following generations. And so, this is some of the most permanent work I've ever done."
Edmonds summed up what he sees from the thousands of volunteers he works with at the food bank and various pantries and agencies: "They walk away saying 'man, I feel filled up.