My senior capstone project this term involved community based learning. I spent my Saturday mornings at Bend’s only emergency homeless shelter – Bethlehem Inn. I loved it. When I come in at six a.m. there is already a buzz in the air. The place is alive. People are out and about. Most of the residents smoke cigarettes and they are huddled around a picnic table and chatting. A stray bunny runs by in the parking lot. It’s usually a beautiful morning here in Bend. The residents walk past me smiling.
My responsibilities at the Inn are minimal. I check the residents in and out when they leave the premises. I distribute toiletries and find staff members when the need arises. It’s not taxing work, so I enjoy having the opportunity to chat with the residents when they come in the front office.
I didn’t know what to expect when I started volunteering. Growing up in Portland, homelessness was something that was very visible. Living in downtown Portland you see homeless people on an hourly basis. Here in Bend, a resort town, you don’t see as much homelessness. What I quickly learned at the Inn was that these residents were NOT the people you see on the street. They are NOT the ones begging for money. I was surprised at just how many residents held jobs. They held jobs in retail, fast food, house cleaning, etc. The residents I got to know were just like you and me.
Yes, some of the people were recovering from addiction problems and yes some of them had been at the Inn before, but that is what I loved so much about it: Bethlehem Inn is a safe place. When these people needed shelter, the Inn was there. There is no judgment. There are no spiritual requirements. It is a welcoming place that provides resources to residents on how to receive government benefits, how to find steady work and stable housing, etc. No, the Inn won’t be able to end homelessness and not every person will take the opportunities offered but I was really impressed with how much was offered by the Inn. I was also impressed by how much was given to the Inn.
The Inn doesn’t have it’s own kitchen so it relies on the help and donations of the community to feed the residents (which can top up to 100). I personally took the opportunity to make breakfast burritos for the residents (as of this writing I have completed 60). Because the Inn doesn’t have it’s own kitchen the weekday breakfasts are cold, but Saturday mornings involve a hot breakfast and plenty of chatter. I love overhearing the conversations from the dining area. They are some of the most “unedited” and fun conversations I hear.
Bethlehem Inn is an amazing place that allows for personal growth and development for both residents and volunteers. I’ve learned a lot while volunteering there. I know that I am deeply blessed to have employment and housing. I know that I am blessed for having a support system around me, and that not everybody has that. We need places like the Inn to exist to be an alternative support system for those who so desperately need it.