Christian Charity: The Sunday Morning WORKship aids people experiencing homelessness in the pandemic

click to enlarge Volunteers lined up to hand out food, water, blankets, hygiene supplies, and pet food. - DAVINA DOBBINS
Davina Dobbins
Volunteers lined up to hand out food, water, blankets, hygiene supplies, and pet food.

For many, Sunday is a day of worship. At Z Mansion, it's a day for WORKship.

WORKship is a non-profit organization that provides food, clothing, pet care, harm reduction equipment and medical care to individuals experiencing homelessness in Tucson. It is run by the Hill family on their property which is also a wedding venue called Z Mansion.

WORKship embodies early Christian practices. "[E]arly Christians were a communal group of people who really were not formally organized. They took care of one another and they took care of the poor," said Rick McCallum, one of the lead volunteers.

Similar to early Christians, they do not collect monetary donations. And WORKship doesn't provide the typical Sunday sermon.

According to McCallum, he and Tom Hill, the founder of WORKship and an ordained minister, used to give a seven-minute sermon. The sermons were focused on tips for living as a homeless individual, how to take care of your feet in wet weather, how to get food stamps and how to navigate your healthcare.

Since last March, many things have changed at WORKship.

Hot Meals and To-Go Food

Shane Urbaniak, the lead cook in the kitchen, said that serving food "used to be a really easy buffet style where [guests] would walk up and we would fill up their plate. And now instead, everyone has to be out with cones and be distanced and we have to go to them."

Urbaniak said he now arrives an hour earlier than he used to, in order to start prepping food for 100 or so people. He coordinates volunteers and makes sure all the food is prepped, cooked, and ready to-go.

During the winter months, WORKship also supported a soup project. Every night, even on weekends, Urbaniak and several volunteers prepared soup and hot chocolate.

"That was just really incredible... because especially during the winter, a lot of shelters close down and so for a lot of people, we were the only source of care," Urbaniak said. He laughed and said, "My car still smells like soup and hot chocolate to this day."

Not much has changed as far as the selection of food that is served. Urbaniak describes being lead cook as very similar to what one would see on the show Chopped.

"I really just go with whatever we have.... it's always random and I never really know what I'm gonna make until the day of," Urbaniak said.

Prior to COVID-19, WORKship used to have the guests sit down, similar to a restaurant.

"Before the pandemic there were tables in the courtyard and we would be like little waitresses kind of and just tend to all [the guests] needs while they were sitting down," said Kendall Colell, another lead volunteer. She has been coming since the start of COVID-19 and can often be seen with her twin, Cierra.

Cierra Colell explained that as the pandemic has evolved, so have the logistics at WORKship. Initially, they set up tents for sick people and a separate area for healthy people. The tents were removed, and people had to line up 6 feet apart in the alley. When food was prepared, a volunteer with a tray of to-go containers would go to either end of the alley and hand out food, working their way back toward the mansion.

Now, three tables are set up on the left and right side of the alley, just past the back entrance to Z Mansion. Cierra Colell said that this is efficient but "we just aren't really able to communicate with people as much as we used to."

Clothing

WORKship also provides seasonal clothing from top-to-bottom. McCallum noted that clothing distribution was formerly just to the right of the gate and under the tree when you first walk in. It was called 'the boutique' and people could take whatever they wanted.

"We try not to be the people to say, 'Only one pair of socks,' 'No, you can't have three shirts.' I mean we were just like, 'Here it is,' we don't save anything back. If we got it, you can have it and we'll just get more." McCallum said.

Now, people are no longer able to try on clothing and whatever is available is distributed at the same time as the food. Because WORKship runs on donations only, there is always a need for clothing donations.

"Shoes, socks are extremely important. Clean underwear is very important. Sometimes, when it's monsoon season, the little ponchos are greatly appreciated, and especially during winter months blankets are extremely important," Cierra Colell said.

Pet Food and Care

Every Sunday, volunteers from an organization called "Cody's Friends" come to WORKship to provide cat and dog kibble, wet food, potty bags and treats.

"Homeless people will frequently feed their pets before they feed themselves, in fact [they] almost invariably do that," McCallum said.

Stacy Thomas, a veterinary student at the University of Arizona, began volunteering last summer. "I was very interested in doing community outreach work and one of the program coordinators at the time started taking me to different outreach locations... and of course encouraged me to go to Z Mansion, and I did," she says. She has been there most Sundays since.

Thomas said that Pima Animal Care Center (PACC) provides vaccines and medical supplies for the once-a-month wellness check for pets and Dr. O'Donnell from Northwest Pet Clinic comes to help host the clinic.

Harm Reduction Supplies

Beth Weise from The Church of Safe Injection Tucson (CoSIT) provides sterile supplies for drug users on Sundays. This is often called "needle exchange" but CoSIT provides much more.

"I go every Sunday and distribute sterile syringes in either long or short needle tips, sterile cottons that are used to filter drugs, sterile cookers that are used to prepare the drugs, alcohol wipes to clean the skin before injection... and then also distribute sterile meth pipes or bubbles, oil burners," Weise said.

The idea behind harm reduction supplies is that CoSIT's clients are going to use the drugs no matter what, so by providing sterile supplies, there is a decreased chance the individual will get a serious infection and burden the healthcare system.

To better understand this, Weise said, "Harm reduction is part of the way of life... a seatbelt is harm reduction and adding seat belts to cars did not increase the rate of car accidents or the speed at which people drove. Giving people sunscreen when they go to the beach doesn't make them stay longer or expose themselves to the sun in harsher ways... this is no different from what I'm doing."

Weise described how she met individuals at Z Mansion who started out getting syringes every week. With access to clean supplies, they slowly transitioned to smoking instead of injecting, which is a huge harm reduction step.

"[I]t's harder to smoke yourself to an overdose than it is to inject yourself into an overdose, so there's that level of protection there," Weise said.

When COVID-19 hit, a lot of clients turned back to syringes. CoSIT became essential, as many other needle exchanges in Tucson shut down.

Clinic

WORKship also has a clinic, where individuals can be seen for a range of issues and can receive a variety of treatments depending on the care providers volunteering that day.

Jody Kosanke is a respiratory therapist and a lead volunteer at WORKship. She's been volunteering there for about five years.

Kosanke said prior to the pandemic the clinic focused on preventive care, particularly for feet. "A lot of soaking of feet, really looking for athlete's foot, because so many of them are walking literally miles and miles a day," she said.

The clinic used to be set up inside the carriage house at Z Mansion, a large, air-conditioned room. There were five stations for care and one private station for looking at more personal injuries of "wounds, abscesses, that type of thing," Kosanke said.

When COVID-19 arrived, the clinic lost many highly qualified volunteers.

"We used to have a lot more physicians and physician assistants also coming, but once COVID hit, they couldn't really risk coming to WORKship and volunteering, for fear of actually getting sick and maybe taking, you know, the virus back to the hospitals and clinics that they worked in," Kosanke said.

Now, the clinic is set up in the outdoor courtyard area between the mansion and the carriage house. There are three stations and guests who need medical attention are provided with the highest level of care possible, depending on who is volunteering that morning.

"We provide wound care, basic vital signs," Kosanke said.

But when you have a licensed medical professional there, like a nurse practitioner, a physician's assistant or a physician, they are able to practice the highest level of care the provider allows.

This is taken very seriously by the volunteers.

"I am not a doctor, and I do not play one on weekends," McCallum said.

Community Certified Health Specialists

McCallum and many of the other volunteers have a Certified Community Health Specialist (CCHS) designation. The training gives them specialized knowledge and skills for recognizing ailments and interacting with homeless underserved populations.

"There is a method to what we're doing out there, it isn't just wandering up and down and being friendly, although, that's a big part of it. But we're looking to see if somebody is limping, if they're coughing, if they just look sick," he said.

According to McCallum, CCHS volunteers can start to recognize signs and symptoms with a level of sophistication.

"We have spotted people with diabetes before, by the way they walk," he said.

Tom Hill teaches a highly recommended course at the University of Arizona training undergraduate students in these skills.

"You get to explore street medicine, and you are able to distinguish different diagnoses based off of [an individual's] nails, hair, their gait, all of that... I think it's really beneficial especially for people who want to pursue... a career in healthcare," Cierra Colell said.

The CCHS program also teaches individuals how to de-escalate tense, potentially dangerous situations and how to respond to individuals experiencing mental and behavioral health crises. Each level of CCHS certification is associated with a specific curriculum and number of hours, for example after Tom Hill's class and 100 hours working with the target populations, an individual is considered a level one CCHS.

The Guest Perspective

On Sunday morning WORKship serves 60-100 guests, and never turns anyone or any request away. A gentleman who prefers to be identified by the name "Steve T." shared his thoughts.

"I go there because first things first is, Tom does an amazing job. And in my position of not having a job and home and no finances, I have to have somewhere where I can get the things and items I need," Steve T. said.

He explained that most of his days are boring. He picks up trash, reads, and will chat with people who go into the office building he sits by. But Sundays are a little different.

"Sunday mornings are fantastic," Steve T. said. "I get everything I need. I need clothes, they have clothes. They've definitely got water. I need food, they've got food. They give me anything. If I need a blanket, they give me a blanket... And how does that affect my day? Are you kiddin'? I'm able to eat, I'm able to praise God for the food I've gotten and the blessings I've gotten."

It's not just the food and necessities that the guests look forward to. Steve T. enjoys seeing the kids who volunteer, but especially Cierra Colell, who has made a big difference in his life.

Living with homelessness is challenging and Steve T. tries to stay positive and process his situation a little at a time.

"I'm trying to eat an elephant out here," he said. "All I can do is how you eat an elephant... one bite at a time... mentally, I can not handle all of it at one time, so what I do is I'm just taking one little bite at a time. That way, as I nibble away on it, it disappears."

Addressing Misconceptions

Many people have preconceived notions of what it means to be homeless and what people experiencing homelessness are like.

"There are a lot of stereotypes, that once you actually get involved, you become not only more acquainted, but you can become friends with these people that are maybe not [at] the best time in their life," said Thomas. "You find more commonalities than differences."

She says these stereotypes need to be broken. As a volunteer since last June, Thomas said she can see beyond what the guests are experiencing.

"The pandemic has shown us very clearly, that given the absolutely unwarranted financial burden that these restrictions on working families and businesses, you might be housed one day, and you might not be able to afford your rent the very next," Thomas said.

To experience homelessness is not necessarily a choice people make.

"I mean, it ain't like people think," McCallum said. "Sometimes people talk about 'But if you teach them to fish, then they can go out there." Yeah, right, sure—if you buy a refrigerator and a kitchen and a fishing license and a fishing pole."

McCallum said if you want to find out about homelessness or how to help people, come with open eyes and open ears and just observe what WORKship does.

Post-COVID-19 Hopes

COVID-19 has created hurdles for the homeless community in Tucson and organizations like WORKship that serve them.

"I think these imposed restrictions of distancing—restrictions that are really rigid to the amount of interaction that they have—I really hope to see that change, I hope we can go back to being a bit more compassionate and inclusive," Thomas said.

Many of those interviewed for this article expressed the desire to return to the way things were prior to the pandemic.

"I am hopefully optimistic that we will get back to a place of being able to gather inside the patio area at Z Mansion, to have everyone be able to come together and sit and eat like they did before COVID, as a family, as a community," said Weise.

She explained that Tom Hill and his wife used to arrange for special treats like musicians coming to play live music.

"And that's just really powerful stuff. I think specifically for this population, that type of care and inclusion is so valuable," she said.

McCallum said that the way things used to work created an opportunity for "homeless people to have a bit of normalcy... a place where they can sit down in beautiful surroundings, where everybody loves them and eat a meal."

Davina Dobbins is a volunteer at WORKship on Sundays and a dual-degree master of business administration/master of public health student at the University of Arizona. She is also working on graduate certificates in science communication and college teaching and originally wrote this story as part of an independent study journalism class through the certificate program. Davina will begin medical school this summer and wants to increase awareness and importance of working with underserved populations.

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