Every evening, the staff at Plymouth Church United Church of Christ moves the tables and chairs out of two large classrooms on the second floor of the building. They get sleeping mats out of storage and prepare the rooms to accommodate as many as 45 women who have no other place to spend Seattle's cold winter nights. In the morning, the staff moves the tables and chairs back again and prepares for the congregation's daily activities. But from 8 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., seven days a week, Janice Randall, Plymouth Church's director of communications, really can't think of a better way to use that space than to provide a warm, safe refuge for women in need.
"Plymouth has long been known to support social issues," Randall said. "Our downtown location lends itself well to advocate for the lost and disenfranchised."
The church is currently serving as a temporary location for the Women's Housing, Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL), a grassroots organization that serves homeless women in downtown Seattle. WHEEL recently lost access to its night shelter and was connected to Plymouth Church UCC though the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE), an umbrella social service organization that the church has worked with in the past. After discussions with Plymouth Church UCC's minsters, council, members and staff, the congregation decided to offer space to WHEEL during the organization's busiest time of year, with a contract in place from October 2013 to March 2014.
"When we heard that WHEEL's winter shelter options were no longer available, that the women's shelter was essentially homeless, Plymouth stepped up to provide that shelter," Randall said. "The group was welcomed with open arms the first of October."
The women who use the shelter range in age from 20 to 70 and their reasons for being there vary. Since opening Oct. 1, Plymouth staff and members have visited with the women, provided baked goods, and are collecting blankets the women will need during the winter months. Randall said the congregation's response has been overwhelmingly positive, and that this is just an extension of the social justice work the church does year round. Over the past three years alone, Plymouth UCC has donated more than $140,000 and countless volunteer hours to Mary's Place, another Seattle organization that provides day shelter, resources, and food to homeless women and children. The support from Plymouth Church UCC and other community advocates allowed Mary's Place to recently open three new family shelter programs.
Dorothy Mann, longtime Plymouth Church UCC member and supporter of the WHEEL program, is proud of her church's social justice work. She puts herself in the shoes of the women they are serving and knows that they are making a difference in their lives.
"Plymouth is reclaiming its social justice legacy in a big way," said Mann. "I thought as I drove through the pounding rain, 'What would it feel like to not know where I was going to spend the night?'"