In 2003, members of the Downtown Ministerial Alliance shared the experience of showing up for work in the morning and regularly finding homeless neighbors sleeping in the doorways. The 2004 Homeless Census – conducted by the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless (TJACH) – supported the clergy’s experience. Dozens of individuals were living in the streets, in the woods, in their cars, in abandoned buildings, behind garbage dumpsters, or around churches in the middle of winter.
With a pressing need for shelter, the Downtown Ministerial Alliance and TJACH joined together. They gave their grassroots initiative the name PACEM – an acronym for People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry, a word that also comes from the phrase for peace: dona nobis pacem. Based on a rotating shelter model from Richmond, PACEM opened during the winter of 2004.
Low-Barrier Model of Care
Our goal was simple: a pillow for every head. We served 159 men that inaugural winter, many of whom were addicted to alcohol and wary of the hot meal and warm bed we offered.
Now we regularly serve more than 200 adults across a 24-week shelter season. Their needs are greater: addiction to hard drugs, trauma and significant mental illness, and restrictive criminal histories keep their paths to housing fraught and uncertain. But their engagement is there. And we have responded to these emerging requests.
Over the years, evaluating key data and reacting to community crises, we have improved our shelter services for seniors, women, and individuals at greatest risk for Covid-19. We partner with community organizations to support changing guest needs. We began our efforts with minimal staff, and now boast proudly of our team of five case managers and a three-person director team. More than ten full-time monitors supports their work as well as the daily needs of each guest. Our team’s diversity is our strength.
As we prepare for our 19th season this upcoming winter, we look forward to greeting the three new faces of every four that come through our doors, and providing them with respite, dignity, and support. A simple goal of providing respite established in 2004 has become a habit of loving our neighbors unconditionally.
Rebuilding Trust in Our Guests
To date PACEM has served more than 1,700 neighbors in need! It has been a blessing to serve each of them, to hear their stories, to be invited into their lives. We are privileged to witness their experiences. Along the way, we have learned that homelessness is not simply “house”-lessness. To be homeless is to lack roots, ties to place, and a sense of belonging.
Extending hospitality re-establishes this connection. PACEM believes that a welcoming, safe place to shelter is the first step to addressing the crisis of homelessness. More than 80 regional faith groups directly support PACEM’s shelter programs through hosting, meal service, donations, social activities, and funding. We partner with secular organizations and service providers to complement the generosity of our congregational supporters. Our volunteers demonstrate to guests that they are loved, exactly as they are. Love disrupts the disappointments that guests have experienced prior to entering our sanctuary.
Thus, with a modicum of trust, the real work begins. Our case management program clarifies and simplifies the many tasks required of a guest to move on from our shelter successfully. As a guest is willing, our team helps them with everything from personal documentation, securing healthcare providers, improving their income, and – of course – navigating the housing market.
Approaching 20 Years of Service
We know that the need for low-barrier shelter exists in our community. The work PACEM has done across the pandemic – developing new models of congregate care on the fly, imagining and realizing unparalleled success in never-before-offered hotel- and motel-shelter programs, and strengthening our partnerships with UVA, Region Ten, and more – demonstrates the value of what we do as a community to care for each other without judgment or expectation. We contribute to the efforts of minimizing the duration and negative impacts of the crisis of homelessness on those who experience it.
As the hotel shelter program closes, we welcome the chance to imagine our own future as an organization. We have come a long way from the partnership between faith organizations and emergency responders that led to a church opening its doors in November 2004 to welcome in strangers. PACEM’s role in this safety network remains constant: our programs alleviate the challenges of homelessness through compassionate support, relationship building, and facilitation of services. The pandemic showed how adaptable we are as a service provider, and how essential. Thank you for your continued support of PACEM throughout this next transition.