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Autumn 2004 | Volume 27, Number 4 | Alumni

Putting a Face on Homelessness

At the Bread of Life Mission, Young Alumni Work to Restore Lives

"When you’re a tramp like me, you come up north in the summer and go south in the winter. I try to keep clean and shave because I learned the hard way what people think of the homeless.”
Fresh out of SPU, Michelle Allison and Will O’Brien work at Seattle’s Bread of Life Mission. The 19th-century brick building, once a brothel, now offers sanctuary to the homeless.

Meet George, 31 years old, homeless, but trying to get his life back at Seattle’s Bread of Life Mission. This small sanctuary feeds approximately 200 men, women, and children daily, plus provides beds, showers, and laundry facilities for 75 male clients each night. For men who want out of the homeless cycle, the mission offers an ambitious rehabilitation program that includes training in job and social skills.

Only five staffers run the mission, and two of them are 2004 Seattle Pacific University graduates: Michelle Allison and Will O’Brien.

A communication and sociology major who now works as community relations director at Bread of Life, Allison spent four years of her childhood in Brazil with her missionary parents. “I used to think poverty was a Third-World problem,” she says, “and I thought I would work overseas, too. But at SPU, I had my consciousness raised about the poverty right here, and about social-justice issues that contribute to poverty and homelessness.”

O’Brien had a life-changing event of his own. As a sophomore, he joined Seattle Pacific’s Urban Plunge, a gritty five-day experience that gives students a taste of life on the streets. He even had a meal where he now works, and remembers the week as a profound time that put a human face on homelessness.

Faces are important because they can be deceiving. You’d never guess that George is homeless. Clean cut with a mild demeanor, he wears rimless glasses and looks like a computer programmer. He once worked as a welder but spiraled out of control when his wife divorced him back in Pennsylvania and took their two kids. He admits to a troubled life, growing up in “a violent home,” and running away as a boy. With his wife and children gone, George hit the road, traveling coast to coast and into Mexico.“

I learned about God there,” George recalls. “Many times he saved me. All of my life I blamed God, but then he showed me he’s not a bad guy.”

One day in a Seattle park, he heard about the Bread of Life Mission. “When I walked in the door, I was done,” he says. “I was tired of traveling.” Now in the mission’s long-term program, he works there as an evening cook and attends church.

“Most of the guys who come in here have a lot of different issues,” says O’Brien. “They need lots of services and social support. There’s not much out there that can offer all that, but the church does. It’s a natural place to plug these guys in.”

A business administration major at Seattle Pacific, O’Brien came to the mission as an intern. “The business school requires internships, and I wanted one in a small place where I could make a difference and where I wasn’t just making widgets.”

He found a niche doing market research for the mission’s new catering business, “Heroes,” run by men in the program as a means to teach social and business skills. “It was like running a start-up,” O’Brien recalls. “I was applying what I was learning — a perfect fit.” Later, they offered him his current job as administrative director.

The work Allison and O’Brien do is about as difficult as it gets, and in spite of their youth, they seem to take the challenges with a balance of realism and faith. “When I see all the suffering, it can be hard,” Allison says. “Sometimes I feel helpless, but then there are those people who do make it, and they give me hope.”

For inspiration, she goes back to the basics. “I look at how Jesus lived, and that helps,” she says. “At SPU, we always talk about engaging the culture and changing the world, but what does that really mean? You have to invest in it, get involved. Every day, Will and I engage the homeless culture and struggle to find better ways to help them.”

O’Brien adds: “Do we get overwhelmed? Oh, yeah, all the time. We know the poor will always be with us. But we’re trying to help the homeless one at a time. Then, we let God do the rest.”

That works for some, if not all, the men. George is still new to the program, but feels safe now that he’s been given another chance. “It’s a great place if you want to get your life back,” he says. “And I do.”


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From the President
In 2000, Seattle Pacific intensified its commitment to racial reconciliation. Is it possible, asks Philip Eaton, for SPU to discover ways to tear down walls that divide?

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Charitable trusts are benefiting students and donors. One couple, in fact, has seen their trust provide income for them, while supporting student scholarships. [Campaign]

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A Fabulous Time to Be Alive
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A filmmaker talks about his visits with SPU students and his project to share the internment stories of Japanese Americans during World War II. [Books & Film]

Mutual Inspiration
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My Response
For Sharon Hartnett, assistant professor of education, diversity reflects a piece of heaven on earth. “After all, heaven is a multicultural place,” she says.