Wearing a light jacket and no hat, Mayor Jim Ferrell stands in the wicked winter weather outside Calvary Lutheran Church in Federal Way.
Temperatures on Monday night hover around 30 degrees and freezing rain pours onto the blanket accumulation of snow as homeless men walk up to the church entrance one by one, shivering in the rain alongside the mayor.
While the group waits to be let into the church’s back entrance to the kitchen, a car pulls into the lot and a warmly dressed man approaches the group.
“Do you need a coat? Are you warm enough?” the man asks the mayor. “I have an extra one if you need it.”
Mayor Ferrell politely declines and thanks him. In the light conversation to follow, the man said he frequently spends the night at the men’s shelter.
Another man arriving to stay at the overnight men’s shelter individually hugs each of the waiting volunteers and says, “God bless you.”
“He was concerned whether I was going to be warm enough and that struck me as a very thoughtful response … all those there that we encountered were so polite and thankful for our presence and for the food,” Ferrell later told the Mirror.
In a recent column, political columnist Bob Roegner invited the mayor to volunteer at a shelter.Mayor Ferrell accepted the invitation, and volunteered to serve dinner to men at the overnight shelter along with Roegner and Mirror staff.
During the frigid months, Catholic Community Services Reach Out Homeless Winter Shelter programs provide a warm place to stay most nights, daily meals, and case management services to homeless adults in the South King County area from October through March.
On Monday night’s visit, facilitated by Reach Out, volunteers served a dinner meal and also provide breakfast items for the next morning.
Ferrell said this was possibly his first experience volunteering in any kind of homeless shelter.
“That was new to me,” Ferrell said. “I’m really thankful to Bob for having me do this.”
“ … I really welcomed it and I really accepted in the spirit in which I think it was extended,” he said. “Which was for me to see the plight of individuals in our community that are having to deal with these really horrible conditions.”
Ferrell said he was grateful for the opportunity and that “Bob does a really important service in our community” by holding elected officials accountable.
About 20 men trickle into the church and sign in on the attendance sheet as the volunteers set out Caeser salads and plated pizzas, generously donated by The Rock Wood Fired Pizza in Federal Way.
But none of the men make a move to pick up their food from the serving window until one of the volunteers realized this, giving the go-ahead and urging the men to eat after an evening prayer.
There is a registration process for men to earn a spot at the overnight shelter, which at maximum holds approximately 30 men.
Reggie works the overnight shelter shift, monitoring the men from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. As of Monday, he had worked nine days straight, but you couldn’t tell from his friendly demeanor and boisterous laugh.
He calls many of the men, and the volunteers he met that night, by their first name frequently; this small act brings a sense of acknowledgement you didn’t know you needed until hearing your name out loud.
You see the same faces all the time and when the shelter location moves to a different church, the homeless individuals often move along with it, Reggie said.
Some of the men ask for seconds of the meal because they said they haven’t eaten in days; some politely refuse seconds. Many ask for seconds, or thirds, of salad conclusive to the idea that homeless life lacks vegetables and fresh produce options.
Ferrell roams the room, chatting with some about their experiences.
“Some of the folks there never thought they’d find themselves in these situations,” he said, recounting a few of the men he talked with discussing their prior jobs and what they were doing before facing homelessness.
The mayor said he was struck by how many people he recognized, or has known around town for the past couple years.
“We’re all fragile in our [own] way and it’s like, none of us are really that far away from a situation which we may need help at some point,” Ferrell said. “I’m really grateful to the community that provides that help.”
Quiet conversations ripple around the room and some men keep entirely to themselves or sit with their heads down, but a steady stream of sincere thank yous were given when interacting with the volunteers or employees. A few men returned to the outside elements after finishing their meal, against the kind coaxing to stay from Reggie and Whonakee King, Federal Way Day Center program manager.
Despite this, employees and those experiencing homelessness know if belongings or personal items are left unsupervised at their encampments for too long, it becomes a free for all, King said.
Men quietly find their sector within the high-ceiling church room, some taking to corners and along back walls, others setting up their sleeping area in the middle of the room. Reach Out provides sleeping pads, pillows and blankets, which the men disinfect before settling in for the night.
“When we say ‘homeless’ or ‘those experiencing homelessness’ … whatever label it is, we think of them as a collective but these are really individuals, each with their own individual stories,” Ferrell said. “When you think about the plight of the individual, you can’t help but think, ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’”
Above all and differences aside, people can come together when extending generosity to those experiencing hardships, he said.
“It’s really important that people that work in government, be it a staff person or an elected leader, that we understand — not just know — but that we understand the plight of the less fortunate in the community.”
As elected officials or community leaders, it’s important to remember you represent all people.