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Open Doors 24/7 emergency shelter for families fills a growing need

Joe Ader brings Understanding Poverty ideas to Open Doors.

As director of Open Doors, Spokane’s 24/7 emergency shelter for families, Joe Ader puts into practice the principles he has been teaching through Understanding Poverty presentations he has given nationally since 2008. June 5 is the one-year anniversary of Open Doors becoming a 24/7 shelter.

Joe, who created a homeless shelter in Denton, Texas, moved to Spokane to be part of the Pinnacle Church in August 2016.  In September, he learned through Spokane’s Homeless Coalition that Family Promise needed a director for a new homeless shelter.  He was hired in October and the Open Doors day shelter opened in December 2016 under Family Promise at Emmanuel Family Life Center.  The overnight family shelter was at the Salvation Army.

“I have studied poverty since I was 13, when I signed up to go to a Saddleback Church camp.  Instead of going to the wilderness, we arrived at an inner city Los Angeles hotel with prostitutes and their children,” Joe said.

One night, he was scared when someone tried to break into the room he shared with another teen.  The next morning, he told the children living there. Their reaction was, “So?” It was every-day for them. It was eye-opening for him, living a protected middle-class life in Orange County, California.

Joe earned bachelor’s degrees in religion and political science in 1999 at Baylor University in Waco.  In 1998, he started an internet company in California and ran it until the internet crash in 2000.

“You learn more on the way down than on the way up,” said Joe, who realized then that he wanted to make things better for people.  “I wanted to see people’s lives change for the better.”

With the high cost of housing in Orange County, he and his wife moved to Texas, where his internet company merged with another company.  While in Texas, Joe served six years as mission pastor of the Village Church in Denton.

To help nonprofits work together on poverty and to prepare mission teams he sent to South Dallas or Guatemala, Joe created Understanding Poverty in 2008. He wanted team members to understand the culture of neighborhoods where they were going.

Joe gave presentations to other congregations, nonprofits and businesses. Frito Lay Pepsi consulted with him when they started their Food for Good summer feeding program in historic poverty areas of South Dallas. PayPal hired him to “democratize” financial services—bringing bank services to people at their corner stores, using their cell phones.

Along with being director of Open Doors and chair of the Spokane Homeless Coalition, he is developing an online training program at—to be ready this summer.

“When Open Doors opened as a day shelter, we thought we would serve three to four families a day based on the number coming to warming shelters,” Joe said.

Within two hours of opening, the first family came.  In the first two days, 30 people came.

Last spring, the Salvation Army night shelter could take in only 30 people, so they turned the family night shelter over to Family Promise’s Open Doors Shelter, which rents Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. It has capacity to shelter 65 people, sleeping on mats on the floor.

“We host an average of 52 people a night, but since Easter, we have been at maximum capacity and had to turn some families away,” Joe said. “There’s a normal bump after Easter, after Christmas and before school, after people stayed with their families,” he said.

The Salvation Army now offers long-term shelter for families.

“Our goal is to keep families together.  At an emergency shelter, families can just walk in. We consider a family to be anyone caring for a child or someone who is pregnant,” Joe said. “We are unique in that we keep the whole family together.”

Other shelters separate men and women, and rarely accept teen boys or single fathers with daughters.

For 21 years before Open Doors, Family Promise ran the Bridges program—previously the Interfaith Hospitality Network. 

Joe described it as a “traveling shelter,” with three families at a time staying overnight for a week at one of 13 churches, and moving to another church each week. Members of supporting churches serve evening meals. In the morning, families go to the day center at 904 E. Hartson, to work intensively with a case manager.

“An emergency shelter is a step before that.  It’s a place where a family can walk in the day they become homeless,” said Joe.

The Open Doors day shelter is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Emmanuel Family Life Center behind Bethel AME, where they stay in the night shelter from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Joe said the average family leaves Open Doors after 34 days, with 69 percent moving to permanent or transitional housing, such as with Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington, the Salvation Army, Union Gospel Mission or Transitions.

At Open Doors, parents meet weekly with a caseworker. Staff supervisors—on site day and night—work four six-hour shifts. 

Supervisors run the facility and meet with people as needed.  Supervisors often work four days, they have three days off because of the stress of dealing with the families’ traumas.

“Each family has a unique situation,” said Joe.  “It’s not just that they lack housing, but they are also dealing with abuse, divorce, medical care and more.  Those abusing drugs or alcohol are not admitted until they are in treatment,” Joe said.

“We want the children to have a safe space,” Joe said, “so we planned the shelter around the need of a nine-year-old child to have a place that feels like a living room.

Families cook breakfast and lunch for themselves because parents know best what their children will eat. It also empowers them. In addition, congregations or organizations prepare the evening meals or the families will choose someone to cook for everyone.

Volunteer groups bring services. Nursing students come Tuesdays to offer health care and education.  Parenting classes are on Saturdays. The Neighborhood Networks after-school and summer programs do children’s activities.

The Family Promise/Bridges program alone helped 60 people a year.  In 2017, Open Doors and Bridges together helped 1,271 people, including 800 children. More than 30 percent of Spokane’s homeless are children.

Joe shared insights from Understanding Poverty and nonprofits who work together on solutions:

• With many types of homelessness, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

• The lack of transportation makes it hard to access services. Co-locating services would mean people can access more services.

• The lack of affordable child care, especially outside the 8 to 5 hours, makes it hard for homeless parents to find jobs. 

• When a family member comes out of the hospital or has a sick child, there is need for respite care with nursing help and child care, like singles have.  There is respite for single homeless men at House of Charity and single women at Hope House, but not for families.

At Open Doors, about 70 percent of families are intact units with a mother and father trying to stay together.

“Program staff and volunteers are not to judge guests, nor are guests to judge each other,” Joe said. “We speak of ‘guests,’ not ‘clients,’ setting a tone about serving. We encourage people to look for good characteristics in other people. Children and families need to feel safe and loved.

“Four former guests are now on staff, because they have been there and know what our guests are going through,” he said.

Joe said Understanding Poverty also teaches that people experiencing poverty lack resources, and homelessness is not just about housing, but also about losing identity papers, child care, transportation, jobs and relationships.

With a 0.5 to 1 percent vacancy rate in Spokane, it’s hard for everyone to find housing, he said.

“Solutions require more than moving people through creative programs. People are not widgets,” Joe said.  “They need relationships with caring people with time, patience and endurance.”

The main dynamic of homelessness is that people lose relationships and community, so the main way out is to build community.

“Congregations, volunteers and mentors offer built-in relationships and community,” said Joe, so Open Doors partners with congregations and community groups to provide relationships. 

“We tell people in the shelter to build one new relationship with someone in the community, a youth group, an after-school program, a recovery program and other places they go,” he said.

“We invite church members who serve meals to sit with the people and build relationships,” said Joe, who attends Pinnacle Church-Dishman Hills, a church plant from Arkansas started five years ago by the Southern Baptist Convention.

Currently volunteers from several churches help each week.

“We could use more,” he said. 

For information, call 723-4663 or visit

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