In the late 1990’s, Patrick Cameron was a pastor in a small United Methodist Church in Connecticut. He and his wife were expecting their first child, and looking down the road, Patrick had security knowing that United Methodist pastors were supported throughout their lives. Even after retirement, the UMC provides their shepherds with a stable income as thanks for a job well done. Because their extended family lived in West Michigan, they made the decision to return to Grand Rapids. One choice led to another, and today Patrick is without the security of a steady income, or any formal retirement. The only thing he and his family didn’t leave behind in Connecticut is his pastor’s heart.
Today, Patrick is the Executive Director of Grand Rapid’s Servant Center, a para-church organization that is “committed to serving the mentally ill poor and homeless in the greater Grand Rapids area.” When he moved to GR, he pastored a small church for a couple of years, and then in the fall of 2011, he met the founder and director of the Servant Center, Don Tack.
A teacher at the former Grand Rapids School of Bible and Music, Don was passionate about solving the disconnect between the homeless, poverty and local churches in the greater Grand Rapids. The two made a quick connection, and after a “hoodie hike” through the highways and hedges around Grand Rapids, Patrick fell in love with the goal of the Servant Center, helping the mentally ill and homeless living in under bridges, in abandoned buildings and behind make shift shelters throughout the city in tangible, life sustaining ways.
“Even though I had written papers (about ministering to the homeless) . . . I had no idea what I was getting into.”
“Thirty to forty percent of the homeless are mentally disabled,” said Patrick during an interview. “Because they are homeless, they are hard to help.” Without an address, even those who qualify for social security benefits can’t submit claims. Without the financial benefits due them, they can’t get housing. Additionally, the mentally ill homeless aren’t the easiest people to help or place in traditional housing. The “traditional society” around them isn’t always able to distinguish between the effects of their mental illness, and a behavioral issue or habit. A mentally ill person who has flashbacks and nightmares can’t just turn them off, and behave “normally.” Yet Jesus calls the church to minister to the poor and needy among us, and this segment of the population is at the top of that list.
The Servant Center is a formal, licensed payee for the mentally ill clients they help. As a payee, they file paperwork, keep massive amounts of records and administer the social security payment. On a monthly and sometimes weekly basis, they visit their clients, hand them their “allowance” and build relational bridges, turning clients into friends. Patrick said it’s their chance to check it and ask their friends, those who are trusted into their care, “How are you?”
The Servant Center is bonded, audited by govt. agencies every three years, and has their finances managed by a reputable CPA firm. They are listed as legal guardians for their clients, have to file annual reports and are transparent in every aspect of their work. Unlike other agencies in the city working with the same population, the Servant Center takes on some of the hardest cases. They work to find housing, and keep their clients in stable housing for as much of the year as possible. When a client can no longer take care of himself or herself, they help the person transition into adult foster care.
The Servant Center’s cost of doing business is funded completely by a small percentage of the SS benefits that they administer. The govt. allows agencies to take a minute administrative fee for their work. However, the staff’s salaries, money for crisis intervention, and daily ministry needs are provided through donations, churches, foundations and other organic fund-raising channels. The organization intentionally “flies under the radar.” They don’t do major fund-raising efforts, or speak at many fund raising events. Their effort, like their name, is focused on serving the mentally ill homeless, which come within their orbit.
Some ministries look for volunteers for short-term projects or events. The Servant Center doesn’t have a drop-in center or building into which they invite their homeless friends. They still take “hoodie hikes” throughout the greater Grand Rapids neighborhoods to the camps and makeshift shelters known only to the homeless that inhabit them. So the Servant Center doesn’t recruit volunteers, they look for long-term volunteers, those who are willing to pay the price to build a friendship with a mentally ill. Their volunteers serve practical needs, like taking clients suffering from anxiety disorders shopping for groceries, or accepting a phone call now and then to talk about . . . well . . . just about anything. Their clients “just want to feel normal” and the grace of God through a faithful friend can help bridge that gap.