Phil Altmeyer, executive director of the Spokane Union Gospel Mission Ministries, graciously gave of his time recently to tell us more about the work being done in our area by God, through the UGM and the generous gifts from our community. Thank you Phil!
~ Anthony Carollo
Anthony: Tell me what UGM does differently than other local agencies who also serve the poor in our area?
Phil: UGM is committed to meeting the needs of the whole person – physical, emotional, educational, vocational and spiritual. Our desire is to break – not perpetuate – the cycle of homelessness and addiction and give individuals all the tools they need to return to society as God-dependent, contributing members.
We know that homelessness is a complicated issue with a host of underlying factors, and we are pleased to work collaboratively with other agencies in the area to provide an extensive safety net to ensure that no one in our area need sleep on the street.
Our piece of the pie is to work with individuals who are ready to make long-term life change. In order to ensure a safe and healing environment for these men and women, we require that guests be clean and sober.
Anthony: What happened to activate the transition from initially helping women (UGM Women’s Recovery at Anna Ogden Hall), to expanding to include both women and children?
Phil: First, a point of clarification, we began serving women and children simultaneously when we opened Anna Ogden Hall in 1971. In the late 1960s, leadership recognized an increase in the number of homeless women and children. At that point, it was a largely transient population – single mothers fleeing domestic violence situations and women coming out of prison. That was before my time, but I’m extremely grateful that leadership had the foresight to plan for what has unfortunately been the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.
Anna Ogden Hall was initially a crisis shelter. Then in the 1990s, we recognized that to facilitate permanent life change, the individuals we were serving needed more than emergency assistance, and we added the Recovery aspect to our shelters. At that time, Anna Ogden Hall was devoted exclusively to long-term Recovery, and in January 2007, we opened a separate Crisis Shelter for Women and Children at 1234 E Sprague Ave.
Anthony: In that time frame, how have you seen the decline of the traditional family unit affect your ministry?
Phil: Oh, the breakdown of the family has impacted this ministry in so many ways.
First, the men and women who come through our doors are often suffering from the adverse effects of childhood trauma – old wounds that cut so deeply as to disfigure their very souls and prevent them from becoming healthy, contributing members of society. In their woundedness, they have often wounded a great many others, and so the cycle continues.
Secondly, as I said earlier, women and children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. Single moms are far more likely to live in poverty – 41.5% compared to 8.7% of married-couple families – and are extremely vulnerable to homelessness. Children born and raised outside of marriage are five times more likely to be poor. Over 40% of the women coming into our Crisis Shelter say that domestic violence contributed to their homelessness.
Family breakdown is probably the single greatest factor contributing to homelessness in our country.
Anthony: I am struck by how much of your ministry expansion has been the result of large catalytic gifts. We serve a big God, don’t we?
Phil: Without a doubt. I often say that if the Mission had a theme song it would be “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” God loves the poor, and when His people engage in His work, He will provide. Even through the recent lean economic times, UGM was able to build a $9 million shelter for women and children in Kootenai County, which was paid in full shortly after completion.
Basically, all of our expansion has been a direct result of generous legacy giving. Because we do not use these gifts for day-to-day operations, they ensure the long-term financial stability of the organization and have a direct impact on our future strategic plans.
Anthony: UGM Inland Northwest is much more than simply a ministry for the homeless. Choose just one aspect of the ministry that many folks aren’t aware of and tell me about that.
Phil: Well, I’ll pick the UGM Camp since our summer camping season has just ended. And what a beautiful summer it was with over 450 children attending and 143 making the decision to follow Christ.
Many people may not realize that we have 125 acres bordering the Spokane River out near Ford, Washington– where each summer we hold nine weeks of summer camp for children from low-income neighborhoods.
It’s a unique ministry for several reasons: 1) It’s free for the campers. The community provides sponsorships for just $89 per child; 2) We partner with local churches in these low-income neighborhoods to host the camp with UGM providing the facility, the food, the challenge course and basic staff – cook, nurse, lifeguards, etc. The church provides the counselors, the worship team and the work crew. In that way, they begin to build relationships with these children from their neighborhoods, and through the children, they often connect with the families, as well; 3) The church’s youth group often takes a good share of the responsibility, thereby learning a good deal about the gospel in action and how to minister outside the four walls of the church; 4) The public schools in the same neighborhoods have opened their doors to UGM and the churches to begin providing after-school programs, tutoring and relationship-building activities.
Finally, with a new Youth Outreach Director just beginning this fall, I’m excited to see what the future holds in terms of UGM’s ministry to youth.
(Editor’s Note: Welcome to Ryan Brown, UGM Youth Outreach Director!)
Anthony: Tell us what your goals are for UGM Inland Northwest, say 5-10 years out?
Phil: Well, our most immediate goal is to build a new Crisis Shelter for Women & Children here in Spokane. The current facility, an old Budget Saver motel built in the 1950s, is bursting at the seams. And, while time and again women tell us that the message on the marquee is really true – “Hope starts here” – we want to build a new, larger facility consistent in quality and feel with our other shelters. The new facility will have wheelchair accessible rooms, a designated childcare area, classrooms, a computer lab, a commercial kitchen and dining area.
With the extension of Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd, we also have plans to expand the Trent facility into more of a campus.
Anthony: Do you have an estimate of how many volunteers work at your various facilities in any given week?
Phil: Well, between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, we have over 600 high-impact volunteers. These are men and women committed for the long-term and serving an average of 4 hours per week in a whole host of capacities: dentists, doctors, nurses, lawyers, receptionists, tutors, mentors, auto mechanics, counselors, cooks…Pretty much, you name an area of the ministry, and we’ve got volunteers serving there in some capacity.
Anthony: Thanks Phil. One last question: I know your ministry is incredibly diverse and you have many places to plug in volunteers. What are your most pressing volunteer needs?
Phil: One of our most pressing volunteer needs at present is for mature Christians to serve as mentors for the men and women coming out of our recovery programs. Recovery residents often speak of experiencing a sense of family for the first time. Then, after 18 months to 2 years, they must leave that newfound community. The transition back into society — even for a strong, healthy program graduate — can be extremely difficult.
Mentors walk alongside our people through the transition – helping them find a church or open a checking account, discussing job possibilities or childcare options, praying with and for them. Basically, being a friend.
If that sounds like something your readers might be interested in, they can learn more on our website – uniongospelmission.org/aftercare – or call 509.535.8510.