"The world, the human world, is bound together not by protons and electrons, but by stories. Nothing has meaning in itself: all the objects in the world would be shards of bare mute blackness, spinning wildly out of orbit, if we didn't bind them together with stories."
- Brian Morton, Starting out in Evening
Think of life on the street. Words leap to mind like violence, poverty, addiction, and crime. These are all very true and real elements of the street. I have met them. But in the nearly two years that I have been linked arm-in-arm with the members of my street family through Tacoma, Washington's, Nativity House, I have also met healing and hope, community and compassion, wisdom and grace. I have met both God and the Devil here on the streets of Tacoma and I have laughed and cried with them both.
At Nativity House, a drop-in day center for the street and homeless population, we meet people's basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and safety. However, at the heart of our mission is the commitment to form genuine relationships with guests; to learn from them, listen to them, hang out with them and welcome all who enter. Through this work I have learned that each guest has a name, a story, and a unique gift to give.
Over 200 people of all ages, races and backgrounds flow through Nativity's doors during the course of each day. They include hoboes, bag ladies, chronic alcoholics, drug addicts, male and female prostitutes, pimps, the chronically and temporarily unemployed, homeless couples and their children, burned out veterans, migrant farm workers, the mentally ill, undocumented aliens, the developmentally disabled, exconvicts, gang members, drug dealers, disaffected teenagers, women fleeing domestic violence, and lonely seniors. Almost all are homeless, which means they have no permanent address or live in a temporary residence. Most of Nativity House's guests live and sleep in shelters, on sidewalks, under bridges, on friends' couches, in cars and trailers, or in cheap motel rooms and apartments.
Straight out of college, I was thrown into this world I had only heard about or caught glimpses of, but had never known or understood. I came to Tacoma a goodnatured small-town girl, not knowing what to expect. Yet not long after being placed at Nativity House I knew that my story would begin here, and I realized that I would be changed in its telling. My job at Nativity House was to help run the clothing bank, operate the resource office, cook and serve two meals a day, clean toilets, sweep floors, make coffee, monitor the smoking room, lead weekly church services, prevent fights from happening and break them up if they were to occur, and generally keep the building safe from illegal activity. Let's just say that I was baptized by fire.
Katie Villano is a member of the Krista Colleague class of 2004. After graduating from Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA with a degree in Biology, Katie joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Her volunteer placement led her to Nativity House in Tacoma, Washington where she works as program staff in the drop-in daytime homeless center. This fall, Katie will be returning home to Fairbanks, Alaska to pursue graduate studies in arctic ecology. For more information on Nativity House please visit www.nativityhouse.org.