When Vivian Rogers Decker conceived the idea of a daytime center for the homeless in 2012, she chose the name SPIN Cafe because of its double meaning.
Spin, as in what washing machines do, and SPIN, an acronym for Serving People in Need.
She envisioned a safe place where people could get out of the cold, eat a meal and do laundry — a gathering spot where families could go for a few hours and be treated with respect and concern before returning to the bleak reality of living in a car, tent or with friends in a crowded apartment.
SPIN OPENED at 685 S.E. Bayshore Drive in Oak Harbor also with a mission of serving a different need, a need to volunteer and contribute to the well-being of others.
Sitting down for dinner earlier this week, Stephanie Rice represented the dual spirit of SPIN.
At 34, she’s six months pregnant, one week into counting herself among the homeless, but anxious to volunteer.
“It’s somewhere where I can stay warm, not so much for myself but for the baby,” she said. “I get food here and I get coffee, water, tea, hot chocolate, and they usually have snacks sitting out.
“This is also a resource center and there’s access to clothing.”
RICE SAID no such services existed when she grew up in Coupeville and Oak Harbor.
“So I decided if I’m going to be hanging out here, I’d like to give back in some kind of way. So I got my food handler’s permit so I can volunteer, help with dinners.”
At its five-year mark, SPIN achieved its initial goals — and more. It’s become a multi-purpose agency and an important component in services for Whidbey’s homeless population.
Volunteers will be recognized Friday at a “Celebrating Service” fundraising dinner at the Coupeville Rec Center. Tickets are $50 each.
ON AVERAGE, SPIN serves dinner to between 60 and 80 guests on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Meals are not served on weekends, but doors are open from noon to 6 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. About 20-40 people use the drop-in program on those days.
As a support specialist working with homeless students within Oak Harbor School District, Rogers Decker remembers when she first learned the stark realities of cleanliness when you have no home.
“It was a child in middle school with very poor hygiene, so bad someone suggested it be reported to child welfare services for neglect,” Rogers Decker recalled of the 2011 encounter.
“It wasn’t neglect. It was poverty.”
The child’s mother lived on government assistance, Rogers Decker said. “She told me that maybe she’d be able to afford one load of laundry from the 15th of the month to the end of the month. She had a teenage daughter and a teenage son.”
FIVE YEARS later, there are still no washers or dryers at the leased center because the proposal is too expensive. But, inside the drab-looking space with the worn out carpet and the buzz of a busy bus terminal, people in need are helped in many other ways.
A small, part-time paid staff help schedule appointments for health care, housing and vocational training, along with providing access to showers and yes, free laundry services. A legion of volunteers from churches and service organizations regularly either cook and/or serve evening meals.
The nonprofit is overseen by a board of directors. It stays afloat with donations, sales of homemade aprons and shopping bags made from animal feed bags, and grants from Island County.
Expenses for the facility, food, and staff total about $6,200 per month.
INITIALLY, THERE were some objections to locating SPIN so close to the main commercial district of Pioneer Way. Now, however, it has more supporters than critics.
“Vivian was our first board member from the north end of the island and it was an incredibly important move,” recalled Judy Thorslund, founder and board member with the Whidbey Homeless Coalition, which concentrated its services on the south end until Oak Harbor’s needs became too visible to ignore.
The Homeless Coalition opened Oak Harbor’s first emergency overnight shelter in April. Called the Haven, the shelter rotates among church fellowship halls for 90 days at a time using cots, bedding and other supplies owned by the coalition.
SPIN now serves as the check-in center for Haven guests.
Marcus Stroud, president of the SPIN Board and a pastor at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church, said he’s observed many changes over the years as a volunteer at the cafe.
“At the beginning, we served mostly young people who had been couch surfing or living out in the woods or whatever nook or cranny they could acquire to provide shelter,” he said.
“The youth are still there and all, but we are now seeing families coming in for a meal, and the elderly linking up with each other for coffee and a talk, and adults coming down to the Cafe to get advise on job searches or to use the internet.
“What is very evident is that SPIN Cafe is essential to people in the Oak Harbor community. Is is living up to the ideal that Vivian had intended it, a place where everybody would be welcomed.”
SPIN CAFE operates just like a restaurant. SPIN clients are known as guests. They don’t wait in line outside and they don’t help themselves to a buffet.
Rather, a guest’s drink and food preference is taken and delivered by a volunteer. Nine sets of tables and chairs, complete with table clothes and fresh flowers, are a constant presence.
“We have a real diverse population; families, couples, individuals, some working, some not able to work,” Rogers Decker said. “There’s the assumption that single adults should be able to take care of themselves. But some are coming here to eat so they can save money to pay their rent.
“When you are paying 80 to 90 percent of your income toward housing, there’s not much left.”
MANY BOARD members and volunteers give kudos to the culinary efforts of Hidemi Dettman. She’s been cooking the evening meals since the center’s beginnings and strives for nutritious fare with lots of vegetables donated by local farmers.
Dettman cooked for three years without pay until funding became available. She cooks for the masses using the kitchen of nearby First United Methodist Church.
Rogers Decker said she’d like to follow the model of Fare Start in Seattle that combines feeding the homeless with teaching cooking skills and training for restaurant work.
“My vision was to start a nice restaurant where people could come in and pay what they could,” she said.
FOR KEITH Williams, it’s what’s not at SPIN that helps him most. No drugs, no alcohol, no temptation.
“I’m here from the hour SPIN opens until they close their door,” said Williams. “I’m in recovery, four years clean.”
He’s been without shelter for about a month after leaving transitional housing for recovering addicts.
“I come here because the volunteers are really helpful. Living on the street is a struggle. It takes every bit of time, energy and resilience you have just to survive.”
“Every day you have to think about ‘Where am I going to eat? Where am I going to use the bathroom? Where am I going to sleep?”
BEING ABLE to count on SPIN and the Haven for daily needs means there’s more time for Williams to pursue getting his life back on track.
A 1983 graduate of Oak Harbor High School, Williams said he once acted in numerous productions at Whidbey Playhouse.
Recently released from prison after serving time for a drug conviction, Williams said his past troubles don’t matter at SPIN.
“The only questions they asked me when I first got here were: ‘Are you hungry? Do you need a sleeping bag? Do you need clothes? Do you need to use our phone?’”
SPIN Cafe dinner fundraiser “Celebrating Service” is 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10 at Coupeville Rec Center. Catering by Serendipity, fine wine by bayview. Tickets $50. Available at bayview, Branch Business Services, Collage. For more information: 360-682-5949 or firstname.lastname@example.org.