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'God's house'

A return to order helps shelter reclaim lives

'God's house'

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Five years ago, when Chico Daniels became director of the downtown Guiding Light Mission homeless shelter, drug dealers threw rocks at the windows to scare him back to California. For as long as anyone could remember, the street had been calling the shots, and 255 S. Division Avenue had a reputation as a gathering place for trouble. Dealers sold drugs in the restroom, brought prostitutes into the shelter, and did what they pleased without fear of punishment.

But Daniels, a biracial former drug abuser with a heart for the "elusive black male" and disadvantaged men in general, stated that the mission was "God's house." He also installed 16 security cameras inside and outside the building, revoked public access to the restroom, and required the homeless men to strip, shower, and change into clean clothes before entering the bedroom. Now, aside from a few stray flies in the pantry and a broken fluorescent light fixture in the fitness room, the premises are orderly and tidy.

Loiterers still congregate on the street corner, near dilapidated storefronts. On a muggy Tuesday morning one man napped in a doorway across the street. But inside Guiding Light, 68 beds have sanitized mattresses and daily-cleaned sheets, and guests may help themselves to the Bibles in the bookcase. A sign on the office wall reads, "S.O.C.K.: Security, Orderliness, Cleanliness and Kindness."

Daniels' biggest innovation is the S.A.V.E. (Spiritually Accountable, Vocationally Equipped) program that offers Christ-based training and accountability to homeless and substance-abusing men. Participants-28 currently-live in dorm-style rooms apart from the overnight area and work toward three goals: job, G.E.D., and Jesus. The last takes precedence over the others and distinguishes S.A.V.E. from rehab programs where religion is either voluntary or absent.

S.A.V.E. has four levels: a one-month detox phase, three months of biblical instruction based on the armor of God section of Chapter 6 of Ephesians, six months (or longer if necessary) of preparation for the work force and job-seeking, and two years of monthly alumni meetings and follow-up surveys after graduation. Since some homeless men come to the mission to hide from family, Daniels says he must constantly remind men of their familial responsibilities.

To remain in the program and graduate, the men must obey strict guidelines. At the top of the list: no fighting, no weapons, no relapsing. A three-strikes-you're-out punitive system draws from the Apostle Paul's advice in Titus 3:10, but Delbert Teachout, the S.A.V.E. program director, admits his inclination to give extra chances. Since its inception in 2001, 176 men have graduated. Among last year's graduates, half have remained employed, while 87 percent say they have not abused drugs or alcohol.

Program participants go on a 2-mile walk each morning, and those who do not find outside jobs work at the shelter, sometimes providing security or doing kitchen work. Mike Balzic, 41, works full-time in the pantry, handling and delivering food, and drives the other men to support groups and medical appointments. With worship music playing in the background, the recovered alcoholic-recently accepted at Calvin College to study accounting-said, "I don't feel like just a number here. I feel like a person."

Staffers, S.A.V.E. participants, and homeless men off the street eat the same food. Tuesday lunch included prime rib, sweet potatoes, salad, fruit, ice cream, and soda. While the first group dined, others drifted into the chapel area in the same room to hear a brief sermon. The two daily services are voluntary for the homeless but mandatory for S.A.V.E. participants.

During worship, some men in the crowd folded their arms, while others softly sang along; then the guest minister, Willy Waver, preached about the power of God to change lives. A S.A.V.E. participant gave his testimony. Waver called on sinners to raise their hands and commit their lives to Christ. Heads bowed, eyes closed, one man from each group responded.

That afternoon, nine men gathered at a table in a busy hallway to listen to a tape series on "The Six Lies of Satan." The group struggled to stay alert during the hour-long meeting, and the discussion leader, Pastor Grady Jones, admitted a shorter tape might have worked better. After the lesson, a visibly upset young man complained to Jones that he hated working in the kitchen and felt too much like he was in jail again. Jones and a fellow program participant offered sympathetic counsel.

The afternoon schedule also included a financial management course, cognitive therapy, and G.E.D. work. Men interested in joining S.A.V.E. must fill out an application at the security desk. "I've hardly turned away anybody," said Teachout. "Our main goal here is salvation, and if you turn them away, they can't get saved." S.A.V.E. focuses on beliefs and not just behavior, the theory being that if a person's worldview changes, the behaviors will follow.

Weekly meetings with personal mentors give participants the extra support they need to persevere. For men who grew up without fathers, a mentor may be the first role model of what a Christian man looks like. Volunteers are encouraged to take the men out to the store, play games, hold Bible studies, and initiate various public activities to give them an idea of how a man should behave in society. But Guiding Light sometimes fails to recruit enough mentors for every participant. About eight of the men lacked mentors in August.

Daniels seeks volunteers who are "stouthearted, compassionate, courageous people," preferably but not necessarily Christian. Everywhere he goes, he asks for business cards and invites people to visit the shelter, hoping they themselves or someone they know will want to get involved. Since participants are predominately black and many staff and volunteers white, Daniels considers the program an opportunity for inter-racial connection "where the white suburbanites can come and roll up their sleeves."

Some participants took jabs at the food menu and at shelter rules, but many praised S.A.V.E.'s effectiveness. "I feel the Spirit of the Lord working on my life," said Jerry Craft, 55. A drug and alcohol abuser, Craft had entered the program a second time after relapsing and losing his job. Now he says his faith has been rekindled and he is enjoying the support of a small, close-knit community.

Anthony Mator

Anthony Mator