On Christmas Eve 1979, a Catholic priest and two volunteers opened up a small storefront in downtown Tacoma, offering homeless people a place out of the cold, a cup of coffee and peanut butter sandwiches.
They called their storefront Nativity House, after the manger scene where Mary and Joseph found shelter for the newborn Jesus.
This Christmas, that refuge for those who are homeless will soon have a new home. The new $13.5 million Nativity House is set to open next week.
Programs operating at three locations will relocate to the 48,000-square-foot facility at South Yakima Avenue and South 14th Street on Tacoma’s Hilltop.
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Catholic Community Services’ facility will provide overnight space for 120 men and 50 women and a spacious, wood-beamed day shelter and dining area for 300 people. The day shelter will be open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week and will serve about 1,100 meals a day.
The new Nativity House will offer more space and expanded services, including job-skills training, substance-abuse counseling and mental-health assistance.
One of the biggest changes is the addition of 50 studio apartments offering permanent housing for adults who are homeless and disabled. The apartments will be Catholic Community Services’ first permanent housing in Pierce County for those who are chronically homeless.
Kathryn Gurko said she has been homeless and living in shelters in Tacoma since 2013. That’s when her financial aid stopped and she could no longer afford to attend the University of Washington Tacoma, she said.
She suffered from cataracts and couldn’t read her textbooks.
“I was trying to finish school before I got the surgery,” Gurko said.
Plans call for Gurko, 63, to be the first to move into an apartment at Nativity House, perhaps as soon as Monday. Each studio has its own kitchen and bathroom.
“I’m very excited,” said Gurko, who is single and has three grown children who live out of state. “I just appreciate being able to have my own space to take care of myself.”
She says the apartment will provide “a place to heal.” She had cataract surgery, but still can’t sustain focus.
Gurko, who has been living at the Tacoma Avenue Shelter, said a portion of her monthly Social Security payment will go to rent.
Apartment residents must pay one-third of their income to rent. The remainder is subsidized by the Tacoma Housing Authority.
Gurko’s goal is to recover her eyesight fully so she can work and go back to college.
“I’m very grateful that this program is being set up,” Gurko said. “I don’t know what I’d do otherwise.”
Nick Leider, homeless adult services director, said every apartment resident will have a case manager.
“We’re going to be able to provide them a home and support to be successful,” Leider said. “There’s going to be a place for people that haven’t had one.”
Next week, perhaps as early as Tuesday, homeless programs at three facilities operated by Catholic Community Services will consolidate and move to the new Nativity House. The three are:
• The current Nativity House, a day shelter about a mile away at 2304 S. Jefferson Ave.
• The Hospitality Kitchen, a day shelter at 1323 S. Yakima Ave., next to the new Navity House complex.
• The Tacoma Avenue Shelter, a 145-bed overnight shelter about two blocks away at 1142 Court E.
Denny Hunthausen, director of Catholic Community Services Southwest, said the new Nativity House will provide more dignity “for people in our community who are among the most marginalized.”
“It will provide more support and services to effectively move people out of homelessness,” Hunthausen said.
After a year of construction, nearly 300 people got their first look at the new Nativity House last week.
After tours and a program, many gathered outside for the blessing and lighting of an outdoor nativity scene.
The crowd held yellow glow sticks as the Rev. Bill Bichsel, a Tacoma Jesuit priest, led the blessing in the drizzling rain.
“Community is the most precious gift we have,” Bichsel said. “We cannot be community without those that are being served at Nativity House.”
The crowd sang “Silent Night” before the lighted figures of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.
Standing near the manger, David Rothrock said he was impressed with the new Nativity House.
Rothrock, 74, founded the original Nativity House on South 13th and Commerce streets. He left the Jesuit priesthood in the early 1990s.
“It’s most amazing,” said Rothrock, of Tacoma. “It offers all services.”
Earlier, Hunthausen told the group that it’s easy to disregard and have disdain for those who are homeless. But people need to recognize “that everyone is our brother and sister,” he said.
Hunthausen oversees a region of Catholic Community Services, which is the human services and housing outreach of the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle. The nonprofit organization serves people of all backgrounds and beliefs.
The Rev. Chris Morton, executive director of Associated Ministries, said the new centralized facility is exactly what is needed so homeless people don’t have to move between three locations. By providing stability, Morton said in an interview, “it makes life a lot easier for everybody who is struggling with their experience of homelessness.”
“It’s not going to serve everybody,” said Morton, whose agency also provides a range of homeless services. “But for the population it does serve, it’s going to make a big difference.”
The total budget for the Nativity House project is $16 million, of which $15.5 million has been raised. About $11 million is from private investor tax credits and government grants. The remaining $5 million is from private donations, the largest of which is a $1 million grant from the Gary E. Milgard Family Foundation.
In addition to $13.5 million for construction, $2.5 million is budgeted for support services to help those who are homeless become self-sufficient.
In the new day shelter, the second floor is lined with rooms where support workers will provide mental health, medical and other services.
The job-skills training will be paired with work performed at Nativity House, such as food preparation and janitorial services.
Mike Tucci Sr., 74, came out of retirement from running his own construction company to be chairman of the capital campaign for the new Nativity House.
Tucci appealed to the group last week to make a donation — big or small — “to this wonderful cause” and the remaining $500,000 to be raised.
The new Nativity House is not only a building, he said.
Its programs will offer an array of services to help people “begin a new life,” Tucci said.