Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302


Parishes minister to homeless families through Interfaith Hospitality Network

by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the Dec. 7, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

The Interfaith Hospitality Network coordinates ministry to homeless families, through many church communities, including Spokane-area Catholic parishes. Kathie Bonner-Walsh is pictured, fifth from left, with staff and clients of the organization. (IR photo from the Interfaith Hospitality Network)

Last May, Kathie Bonner-Walsh, a member of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Suncrest, in the Nine Mile Falls area northwest of Spokane, did what she said she would never do again. After many years working for nonprofit organizations, she accepted a position with another one.

“I have been involved in non-profit development for 15 or 20 years in the Spokane area,” she said. “I told myself I would not go to work again for a nonprofit organization doing development work, but this one is such a ministry and such a worthwhile cause.”

The nonprofit organization that captured Kathie Bonner-Walsh’s heart is the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Spokane (IHNS). The mission of IHNS is, to quote the traditional Corporal Works of Mercy, “to shelter the homeless.” IHNS does this by providing temporary housing at local churches for homeless families. Not only that, but IHNS helps homeless families find permanent housing and employment so they will not become homeless again.

The Interfaith Hospitality Network of Spokane was born in 1997. “Our (homeless) families are referred to us by one of several social service agencies,” Kathie Bonner-Walsh explains, “or by shelters that are full, in the area. The families are housed in what we call our host churches. They have their own quarters that are designated for them. They receive breakfast and their evening meal, and they are given what they need to prepare a sack lunch to take with them during the day. Each host church has support churches that help them by bringing in meals, or doing the shopping, or by providing a volunteer overnight host.”

During the daytime hours, children from homeless families attend school, and preschool-age children go to a state-funded day care center. Parents receive transportation to the IHNS day center at 2515 E. Sprague Ave. in Spokane, where “they have access to a phone, computer, internet, and WorkSource Spokane, a state job-locating and vocational training service,” she said.

The IHNS process can last up to 12 weeks, or longer if necessary, helping parents find jobs and permanent homes.

At present, the IHNS has the capacity to help 14 people at any given time. Most of the time, the organization is working at full capacity, with a waiting list of families.

It’s difficult, however, to describe the typical homeless family that IHNS helps. “We have a mom here who got ill and was in the hospital for an extended period of time,” said Bonner-Walsh. “Because of that she was unable to keep up on her rent, so she was evicted. She has two children who are enrolled in school and had no place to go. That mom needs to have support from social service agencies, and that means affordable low-income housing, services that help the family to continue to move forward and not slide back to being homeless again.

“The children are helped to go to their original school. It’s very traumatic for a child to become homeless and not be able to go to the school they’re familiar with. They need that stability. The majority of our families are from the local area. We have working class poor in Spokane. Foreclosures have gone up, families are being displaced, and it takes more than two incomes for families to survive in the Spokane area.”

Five of the 29 Spokane-area church communities active with IHNS are Catholic. Each parish shelters homeless families for one week every two or three months, giving the family an evening and night-time place to stay and providing meals and other services.

Some church communities are “host churches,” which means that they provide evening and night accommodations for two or three families in parish facilities. Others, called “support churches,” provide backup services for a host church, such as bringing in meals, grocery shopping, or providing transportation. Three Catholic parishes are host churches: St. Joseph and Sacred Heart in Spokane, and St. Mary in Spokane Valley. St. Aloysius and St. Augustine, Spokane, are support churches.

St. Joseph Parish, in northwest Spokane, became a host parish in 1997. The coordinator for St. Joseph is Patty Schoendorf, an IHNS volunteer since moving to Spokane in 2003 and St. Joseph’s IHNS coordinator for more than a year. “Each host church is supposed to have two or three support churches,” Schoendorf says, “but one of our support churches just dropped out, so I’ve been scrambling to find another support church.

“At most places around the country,” she said, “homeless people come to a shelter at a certain time in the evening, and they sign up for the beds that are there, then they have to be out by a certain time in the morning, and they can’t come back until that evening. So during the day they’re on their own. This (IHNS) program is the most successful program in the United States for this. Operating as a mostly volunteer organization allows people to be gracious to other people, and it allows people who have a real need to improve their lives and the lives of their children. The IHNS program is the only one that lets homeless families stay together.”

St. Augustine has been a support church for host church Manito Presbyterian since 1997. St. Augustine’s coordinator is Cindy Carroll, who works with 28 volunteers from her parish. “Some of the people drive families from the host church to the day center, and back again at the end of the day,” she said. “Other people are evening hosts. They visit with the families, help serve dinner, and maybe play games with the kids. Other volunteers are night hosts, and they visit with the families later in the evening and spend the night there. Usually it’s a husband and wife that does this. Then we have a lot of ladies who like to supply food, and typically we supply two dinners that week. When the week is up, they move to another host church, until they’re ready to get out on their own.”

St. Mary, a host parish in Spokane Valley, also has been active with IHNS since 1997. The current coordinator is Joyce Ohanesian. The parish’s adult religious education center houses the homeless families. “It has classrooms, or meeting rooms, that are divided from each other,” Ohanesian said. St. Mary’s support churches are Spokane Valley United Methodist and Opportunity Presbyterian, she said.

Ohanesian coordinates parishioner volunteer teams. One team provides meals, one takes care of setting up and taking down beds, and another team comes two-at-a-time to be dinner hosts. Yet another team is made up of people who serve as overnight hosts. Meals are prepared in parishioners’ homes and brought in ready to serve, or almost ready to serve, she said.

People from the support churches for St. Mary Parish take responsibility on particular days for meal preparation, dinner hosting, and overnight hosting.

“I think this is an absolutely marvelous program,” Ohanesian said. “One of the things that we keep telling our people here, to keep them enthusiastic, is that this program keeps families together. Most of the other shelter programs split the families up; they send the men and boys one place, and the women and girls and younger children another place.”

Ohanesian coordinates St. Mary’s involvement with IHNS, but she says that many hands make light work. “When you have a good team and a good parish, it’s not so difficult.”

Spokane’s St. Aloysius Parish has been an IHNS support church for host parish St. Joseph since 1997. St. Aloysius coordinators Terri Johnson and Jeanne Dawes recruit new volunteers and coordinate volunteers to cover needs at St. Joseph, such as meal preparation, overnight hosts, evening hosts, and “tear-down” once the families depart. “Because we don’t have enough support churches,” Terri Johnson says, “we’ve been helping out every two months instead of every three months. It’s really nice to be part of a program that encourages people to help find a new home. You get to help them, but at the same time they have to help themselves. They have three months (or longer) to get a place and find a job, and we give them every resource to be successful. I’ve watched that consistently happen. I really enjoy participating in the program.”

Spokane’s Sacred Heart Parish has been an IHNS host church for about two years. Sacred Heart’s IHNS coordinator, Dean Duncan, recalls that his parish began as a support church, then later became a host church. “We use the parish center,” Duncan said. “We have two rooms that are used for things like catechism classes, and we partition off the big room and make extra rooms that way, if we need to. We host families four times a year. We have about 40 volunteers in our parish.”

Duncan says that he has had no trouble recruiting volunteers from the parish community. “The people at Sacred Heart have been so generous,” he said. “So many people have stepped forward and asked to help out. It’s been wonderful. There’s a real need for other church communities to step up and help out with this, however, either as host churches or support churches. Any other Catholic parishes that would like to get involved, I’d be happy to speak with them or help train people, anything at all.”

At present, the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Spokane needs at least two more host churches and, ideally, three support churches for each host church. Of course, financial donations are always appreciated.

“I would like to see every church community in the Spokane area active with IHNS, as either host or support churches, or by providing whatever regular financial assistance they can give,” said Bonner-Walsh.

(For more information, and/or to receive the IHNS newsletter, either hard copy or by email, contact the IHNS office: (509) 747-5487; or by email: ihnspok@ cet.com.)


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