The Riverton Park United Methodist Church has a situation that’s somewhat unique in Seattle: It has a lot of land.
The actual building takes up less than 15 percent of the lots held by the church, 2.34 acres, which, on New Year’s Day, were blanketed in a white expanse of nearly pristine snow as sounds of worship emanated from the sanctuary.
One day, most of that land will be sold to a developer looking to build 30 units of affordable housing, said Rev. Jan Bolerjack. Right now, it’s serving a similar purpose.
Riverton Park UMC hosts small houses, a tent encampment and vehicle residents on its property. Add the indoor shelter, and that makes it the only church in King County using its rights as a religious organization to provide all four kinds of shelter for people experiencing homelessness.
Churches have a First Amendment right to provide services on their properties as an expression of their freedom of religion, a right that has been upheld by courts in Seattle.
Riverton Park’s programs evolved over time as the church was confronted with the increasing population of homeless people and the realization that it could better deploy unused rooms and resources to help alleviate the problem, Bolerjack said. “We expanded to meet the need.”
The result is a fairly stable community of people who help out around the church. Campers tend to stay between four and five months, while people on the inside hold on longer. The families in the small houses have been there for five or six years, Bolerjack said.
Families make up a large portion of the Riverton Park UMC homeless community. Roughly 20 kids, aged between 3 and 18, currently call the church home. Their parents are able to leave their children during the day with the ministers and congregants, who coordinate trips such as ice skating or a visit to the ferry to keep them occupied.
The presence of so many children made it an easier sell to the congregation, who became “invested in their spiritual future,” said Rev. Terri Stewart, who joined the church in July.
Allowing 60 people a day to use your facilities means things wear out or get broken.
The congregation “has heart, but not the resources,” so operating expenses and other costs get covered by donations and funding from the United Methodist Church.
Riverton Park UMC won a $75,000 grant from the Best Starts for Kids program in King County, a $392 million levy approved by voters in 2015, but that money will go to rent assistance for homeless people and other social services.
Bolerjack and Stewart hope one day they will have the funding to hire a case manager to help their clients navigate the difficult web of social services that have developed in King County over the course of time so that people can get into permanent housing more quickly, but that’s not currently in the cards.
Those who live there help as much as they can.
Linda, a 69-year-old woman who’s lived in the indoor shelter for six months, contributes out of her Social Security check to help defray the cost, and encourages people to help out around the property with promises of a home-cooked meal.
She worked in a number of industries over the years, but considers herself a mortgage banker. She got the rug pulled out from under her in the 2008 financial collapse and lived off savings for as long as she could before falling into homelessness.
Her grown children do not know about their mother’s situation.
She sees the church as a place for her, and others, to get back on their feet.
“This is what churches are supposed to do,” Linda said.