Compassion Through Action

Sacramento, CA   |  Story and Photos by Jacqueline F
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William Magana, a recent graduate of Union Gospel Mission’s Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Program, now works onsite as the kitchen intern.

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Pastor Tim Lane, Director of Union Gospel Mission Sacramento.

Union Gospel Mission at 55

Sacramento, CA (MPG) – For William Magana, it began with cutting. Up and down the Southern California native’s body, he says, are more than 200 scars from self-mutilation that began when he was only 11, just after his mother, struggling to overcome a heroin addiction, was sent to prison outside Sacramento.  

Until he was nearly 30, Magana lived between the two sides of the revolving door of foster homes, juvenile hall, mental wards, drug and alcohol addiction, arrests, prison, recovery and relapse.

“I supposed I was acting out because I wanted my mother, I wanted to be with her,” says Magana, now 33. “So I started with cutting and then later it was drugs and drinking and all the things that go with that.”

In 1997 Magana was given his first hit of methamphetamine and, for the next 17 years or so would work various jobs just to get enough money for more drugs. Stealing and robbing from his own employers, in one case $8,000 from the till at a local convenience store, for which he would be convicted of a felony embezzlement charge, became routine survival tactics.

“I worked to drug and drugged to live,” said Magana. “It was just an ongoing battle.”

Eventually, he overdosed on his psych medication and wound up back inside one more mental institution near downtown Sacramento.  But upon his release form that hospital, Magana says, something different happened, and it would set him on a course for change.

“I got out with nowhere to go and a couple of homeless guys said ‘Go over to Sacramento’s Union Gospel Mission. They can help you there,’” Magana recalls.  “So I went. And I thank God every day for this place.”

In 2015 Magana enrolled in the Union Gospel’s nine month drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for men, began studying the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible, a requirement all who wish to receive services at Union, and started to turn his life around. But, as is often the case with addiction and mental health issues, Magana began cutting again and within a few months left and got back into old patterns of self-destruction.  But the seed had been planted and he returned in March of 2016.

“You can do that here if you are willing,” says Magana.  “They saw me come back and they took me in again.”

Now, 16 months clean and sober, Magana is a graduate of Union’s rehabilitation program and is working as the Mission’s kitchen intern, assisting with the preparation of the meals given out to the roughly 120 men and women who walk through doors each day.
 
At 55, Union Gospel is on the precipice of growth and much-needed restoration. The restrooms inside the men’s rehabilitation center and living quarters at its Bannon Street facility have, through the donations of supporters, been given a makeover, complete with new floors, private stalls and granite countertops.  Granite countertops and new floors, says Director Pastor Time Lane, may seem like small things, but to the men who are enrolled in the Mission’s rehabilitation program, and the guests the facility serves, they represent little reminders of self-worth.

“What we want to do with the renovations is provide a space that gives our residents a sense of pride and value,” said Lane, who has served in his current capacity at Union Gospel since 2005.

Union Gospel can currently house up to about 60 men in its temporary shelter, but those stays are only good for roughly seven nights, after which they must leave for a minimum of three nights before cycling back in again. This is to allow others to rotate in.  They must carry a current TB card, proof of a recent, negative Tuberculosis test and inoculation and attend bible study sessions.

Meals are served twice daily inside the main dining hall.  In 2016, more than 100,000 men, women and children received a hot meal at Union

Although the area’s homeless population is rising, the numbers served at the mission remain relatively consistent, but that is because availability is limited to current capacity only. Union Gospel’s Bible-based, modified 12-step drug and alcohol rehabilitation program can serve up to 24 men at a time.  Its goal is to steer participants toward a life of recovery, as well as a life centered on the gospel.

“They don’t have to convert, but they have to give us a chance to offer them information about the teachings of the Bible and how, if they want to, they can change for the better, change for good,” says Lane.

Union Gospel Mission offers free showers and access to clean clothes for men who come in from the street during specified hours during the week. In addition, weekly food boxes are donated at a rate of roughly 2,000 a year. The Mission also hands out some 12,000 hygiene kits with shampoo, deodorant, toothbrushes and other essentials that are hard to come by for many of the area’s homeless, as well as job-preparation training, mailroom services, locker rentals, access to a medical clinic, free haircuts, toys for children at Christmas, and other services as the need arises.

The main dining hall is transformed into a warming center in winter and, especially with the region’s latest heatwave, serves as a cooling center during the day time. Every August, Union also puts on a massive birthday party open to anyone on the streets, working or living onsite, as way to provide them with recognition of a day that, for many, often goes unnoticed.

“When you’re on the streets, homeless, or estranged from family members, your birthday can come and go without anyone acknowledging that,” says Eileen Trussell, Union Gospel’s office manager. “So we get balloons and have a giant cake and just offer one big birthday party for anyone who wants to come. It’s an important thing to have someone acknowledge your birthday.”

For all its able to provide the area’s homeless and needy population, Union Gospel’s resources for women are limited, although statistics suggest women, including those with with children in particular, represent a growing sector of the homeless population across the region and nationwide.

The Bannon Street facility does provide one critical service: It’s women’s drop in clothes closet, where blouses, dresses, skirts, jackets, shoes, purses and even accessories, are available, free to any one in need. There is also a small inventory of clothing and shoes for children.

Lane, who was raised by a single mother, said the clothes closet fills a significant gap for many women and those with children, but added that there is a vital need to do much more, as more women are not just in need of clothing but also a place to sleep.

“We served just over 1,500 women and children through the clothing closet in 2016,” said Lane. “But clothing is not enough. We are seeing more and more women on the streets with no place to go. Right now we don’t have the facilities to house women who need a place to sleep, but we are moving in that direction.”

Earlier this year, Union Gospel purchased a 9,600 square-foot building on B Street in the River District with the intention of establishing a women’s rehabilitation program with beds for overnight stays.  Permits are being pulled for the new enterprise, but unfortunately, says Lane, the process is moving very slowly, as officials have been reticent to allow for the opening of one more homeless services center in an area of town largely considered to be saturated with homeless services already.

“We are in the permitting process now, but it’s moving very slowly,” said Lane.  “Unfortunately the city has some concerns, and we understand why.  With the confluence of two rivers, you have all the homelessness you need. But the need is strong. We are seeing many more women out there than we used to see. I know one woman who literally grew up on the streets. Her mother was homeless. I don’t know where she is today, but her daughter is out there. She’s had three babies out there on the streets. The state takes them away each time and she goes right back out again.”

 But for every heartbreak story there is the potential for thousands of stories of success: More than 21,000 men received services through Union Gospel in 2016 and, of that number, 12 successfully enrolled in and graduated from the mission’s nine-month rehabilitation program and started new lives in recovery and service, Magana among them. 

He has re-established a relationship with two of this three children and is looking forward to once again having a place of his own where they can be a family again.  As a condition of his parole, Magana promised to back the employer he stole from in exchange for a reduced sentence on his record. With the help of the $200 a month he earns working in the kitchen, he’s managed to whittle that $8,000 down to $3,000.   

“This time, I’ve gone deeper into God,” said Magana. “I worked hard to learn as much as I could and today I have no desire to drink, use drugs or cut myself. God has taken those impulses away from me.”

While the journey has included a few bumps and detours, Magana is on a new path, one of recovery fueled, he says, by the power of prayer and the commitment to one day giving back what has so freely been given to him.  Twice. 

“I never knew how much happiness I could get out of helping others,” Magana said.  “It’s filled a piece of me I think was missing.”

WAYS TO HELP:
Trough Summer:
Union Gospel Back to School Drive
Items needed: binders, paper, note pads, pencils and pens, markers
Some of the items needed year-round: Clothing and shoes for men and women, children’s clothing and shoes, toys, backpacks, travel sized hygiene products for men and women, laptop computers, vehicles. Visit: http://www.ugmsac.com/items-needed