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‘Homeless’ pastor raises $100,000 but will live on the streets another week

The Rev. Rick Cole of the Capital Christian Center met his goal Monday of raising $100,000 for a winter shelter program, but he plans to continue living on the streets of Sacramento for another week to better understand the homeless men and women that he and his church are trying to help.

Cole does hope to bring in more donations, but said: “What I’m experiencing internally is just as important as the money. I don’t feel complete yet in my personal journey.”

Cole, 57, sat in Cesar Chavez Plaza in downtown Sacramento on Monday wearing a dark baseball cap and T-shirt, with a scruffy growth of gray beard and tired eyes. The normally sharp-dressed pastor, who leads a congregation of more than 4,000 members at his Rosemont megachurch, blended in with the homeless men occupying the benches and lawn around him.

The night before he had rolled out his sleeping bag on the banks of the Sacramento River next to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who slept beside Cole until about 4 a.m., the pastor said. From the West Sacramento side of the river, they talked about life and watched the lights of the city near the Tower Bridge until falling asleep. Before dawn, Johnson quietly arose, shook the pastor’s hand and left, Cole said.

Johnson could not be reached for comment late Monday.

Cole has been on his mission since Sept. 28, when he walked off his church’s stage with his sleeping bag and knapsack and boarded light rail to downtown. He said at the time his goal was to stay for two weeks or until he raised $100,000 in donations.

His website – www.revonthestreet.com – showed donors had given nearly $105,000 by late Monday afternoon as part of a drive to raise a total of $300,000 for the Winter Sanctuary program. Each night, from Thanksgiving to March, about 100 single men and women ride buses to area churches and temples, where they are sheltered, fed and offered assistance getting off the streets and finding work.

Sacramento County cut funding to the annual winter shelter program several years ago, leaving it to the nonprofit group Sacramento Steps Forward, of which Cole is chairman, to coordinate the effort. Cole said he initially thought he might return to his comfortable Fair Oaks home once he hit $100,000 in donations, but said he is learning too much to stop now.

For one, he said, he will no longer lump the homeless into one large group.

“We have such a generalization of people in homelessness,” the pastor said.

Some homeless people are mentally ill and some addicted to drugs or alcohol, but others have found themselves homeless through unexpected circumstances, Cole said.

One woman he met had fallen on hard times with her husband. The couple were newly homeless when her husband, who was on probation, was taken back to jail because he lacked an address – a condition of his release, Cole said. The woman was trying to understand the aid available to her at the Loaves & Fishes homeless services complex on North C Street, he said.

Cole said there are those who refuse help, but others, like the woman he met, are eager to accept it.

“Sometimes we get paralyzed by those we can’t help. That’s not going to stop me from helping those we can.”

Cole has been eating lunch at Loaves & Fishes and tries to get at least one good meal a day. He even preached a few words at the service center’s church on Sunday, though he has generally tried not to draw attention. At the church service, he said he felt a kinship with those who offered him advice and reacted to his description of nights that were long and stressful.

“I felt encouraged,” he said. “I felt like they cared.”

Last Sunday night will probably be the only one he spends by the river, which tends to be more dangerous than downtown, he said. He spent one night at a shelter, grateful for the food and safe surroundings, but felt the strict rules and rigid structure took away too much personal freedom and “dignity.” Instead, he said, he would return to a fenced lot off an alley where he has pitched his tent with different companions on several nights.

Cole has been accompanied at most times by friends and protectors, including former West Sacramento police officer Tom Platina, who runs Capital Christian’s winter shelter program. Cole and Johnson had a number of colleagues stay with them on the riverbank Sunday night.

Nevertheless, Cole said his sleep is frequently interrupted by noises or people searching through a trash bin near his alley hideaway. The other night a man pointed a flashlight over the fence and yelled down: “You got any weed? I got eight bucks,” Cole said.

“I feel really good when the sun comes up,” he said.

Cole said he plans to ride light rail back to his church on Saturday, without changing his clothes first, and resume his role as senior pastor at that evening’s service.

“I’ll get on the light rail and take it back to where my journey started,” he said.

For more information about Cole’s campaign, or to donate, go to revonthestreet.com. Donations may also be made at sacramentowintersanctuary.org or mailed to Sacramento Steps Forward Winter Sanctuary, 1331 Garden Highway, Suite 100, Sacramento, CA 95833.

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