How is Gospel Mission helping Modesto’s most vulnerable: homeless women and children?

Eighteen women were bedded down for the night on the floor of the Modesto Gospel Mission chapel at about 9 p.m. on Thursday. About a dozen more were expected before the midnight curfew.

Sixty-three-year-old Rebecca was among the women who slept in the chapel. (She declined to give her last name.)

She said she has been going to the mission and other shelters off and on for about a decade. “I’ve been having troubling finding housing,” she said, adding she gets about $1,000 a month from Social Security’s disability program.

Rebecca said when she does find housing, it just doesn’t last long and she’s back on the streets. She’s been sleeping in the chapel for the last year and said she has no interest in the mission’s other programs. “I just stay here,” she said. “It’s pretty nice. I like the food and the people, and it’s nice and clean.”

Rebecca had been living in Waterford before becoming homeless. “My family just broke up,” she said. “Everything just broke up.” Asked whether she had family members who can help her now, Rebecca said, “I have family, but I just can’t seem to find them.”

The women who sleep in the chapel can have a sack lunch for dinner and a shower and breakfast in the morning. They also can stay in the mission’s day program.

Because its emergency shelters are running at capacity, the mission for the past year and a half had been opening its chapel in all seasons for men, women and women with children who have no place to sleep.

About six months ago, the mission switched to allowing only women and children, though primarily single women show up. When women with children show up, they spend the night in the adjacent dining room so the kids don’t disturb the other women.

“This is our biggest need, and they are most vulnerable,” mission CEO Jason Conway said about the reason for letting just women and children spend the night.

Modesto giving $100,000

Conway said the mission will provide these women and children with more help after the Modesto City Council last week approved giving the mission $100,000 to cover the costs of this program for one year. The money also will pay for a case manager and the purchase of 40 cots.

This comes as the mission is working on expanding its number of emergency shelter beds for women and children from 35 to 75 and the number of beds in its 12-month New Life Program for women and women with children from 20 to 40. The additional capacity is expected to come online in about a year.

The Gospel Mission has 80 emergency beds for men and 60 beds in its New Life Program for men. Conway said they, too, are full.

“We have a waiting list for all of our programs,” Conway said. “This is the first time I’ve seen this in my 16 years I’ve been with the mission. ... Something has shifted. (Is it) more people are coming into shelter or have we lifted our culture to be more welcoming or a combination?”

Peggy Merrell prepares her sleeping spot at the Modesto Gospel Mission on Yosemite Boulevard on Thursday night, Nov. 9, 2023.
Peggy Merrell prepares her sleeping spot at the Modesto Gospel Mission on Yosemite Boulevard on Thursday night, Nov. 9, 2023.

Chapel draws ‘repeat customers’

He said an example of a more welcoming culture was the mission doing away a couple of years ago with the rule that after people had been in the emergency shelter for 30 days, they had to leave for 15 before they could come back. That was put in place more than 20 years ago when the mission last had a waiting list.

Conway estimated there are 15 to 20 people on each waiting list for a bed in the emergency shelters for men and women.

Mission staff support member Kevin Thomas said about 18 to 36 women will show up each night to sleep in the chapel. He said women with children show up four or five times a month. Thomas said the vast majority of women are “repeat customers.”

The mission recently purchased the Food Initiative of Greater Stanislaus’ building. The food pantry, which is one of the mission’s neighbors in the airport neighborhood, is moving its operations to a warehouse as it transitions to a mobile food pantry to serve more people. The move is expected to take place in early December.

Women settle in for the night at the Modesto Gospel Mission on Yosemite Boulevard on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.
Women settle in for the night at the Modesto Gospel Mission on Yosemite Boulevard on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.

Conway said the mission will move its New Life Program for women into the food pantry’s building and increase the number of beds from 20 to 40.

He said the mission also will replace the 20 single beds the New Life space where women now sleep in with bunk beds and make that space an emergency shelter, increasing the total number of shelter beds for women and women with children from 35 to 75.

“We are just pressed to be able to meet the need for the most vulnerable in our community,” Conway said about the expansion.

Elizabeth Godinez, left, and others arrive at the Modesto Gospel Mission on Yosemite Boulevard on Thursday night, Nov. 9, 2023.
Elizabeth Godinez, left, and others arrive at the Modesto Gospel Mission on Yosemite Boulevard on Thursday night, Nov. 9, 2023.