The Union Rescue Mission, which gives a bed and a meal to about 123 men every night with no strings attached, will end that practice in three months, the mission announced Monday.
In 90 days most of the men at the Mission will either have to sign up for programs designed to help them turn their lives around or find another place to eat and sleep.
The Mission has offered charity for 64 years, and several homeless men have slept there – no questions asked – for decades.
But last year, director Denny Bender and the Mission’s board began to question whether their charity enabled people to the point of harm.
“We’ll be as compassionate as we can,” Bender said of the new requirements. “But the point of this change is that the men will have to take a step in the right direction and not continue to rely solely on the benevolence and charity of others.”
Some men will continue to stay at the Mission near 27th and North Hillside, Bender said. The charity has spent years taking care of men who are disabled, for example.
Some of the clients are working men.
“They have minimum wage jobs, court fines, child support, or other financial obligations, and are trying to work those off but it doesn’t leave them enough for rent and utilities,” Bender said. For a modest fee, they can stay and have meals, he said.
Many of the clients have mental problems or health problems or bad luck. But a small percentage of the men the Mission serves are able-bodied and could benefit from this decision, Bender said.
“It’s an effort by the Mission to stimulate a soul-searching decision by each man who comes to our door,” he said. “We want them to seriously ask, ‘Do I continue on this aimless path, or do I accept the opportunity the Mission is offering to turn my life around?’”
One thing the homeless men need to understand, Bender said, is that they are not being turned away. They can stay if they sign up for the several programs at the Mission that help people deal with alcoholism and drug problems, or with chronic problems with life and job skills.
The Mission announced the new rules 45 days ago to the men who show up regularly.“There was a noticeable silence,” Bender said. “We didn’t get a standing (ovation). But at the end, there were a few muffled claps and a little applause. Some of them told us later, they understand.”
If men are turned away in 90 days, it won’t be a permanent departure, Bender said. In 90 more days, they can come back.
He predicted that a small percentage of the homeless community would try to find a way to avoid signing up, and might disappear somewhere for a while. “A small number of these men know how to work the system, and the homeless community is surprisingly mobile,” he said. “Some of these men, it wouldn’t surprise me, will turn up somewhere else, in Salina, or Tulsa, or some other place where they think they can find a decent reception.
“But some men will sign up for these programs. Some will try to get help, and that is our primary objective.”