The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


An arm the homeless still lean on

Nyer Urness House is named for a pastor of the streets

The homeless man was doubled over and retching in the cobblestone alley in Pioneer Square. He grasped Nyer Urness’ outstretched arm for strength. For decades Urness, a barrel-chested Lutheran minister, trod the cold and dank streets of Seattle’s urban core alongside men and women who had no home and were hungry, filthy, addicted or sick.

“When he stopped, a congregation would form around Nyer,” recalled longtime friend Demar Sather. Rather than preach, Urness listened, pointing them to where they could find a mattress, meal or shower. “The Spirit kind of flowed through Nyer,” Sather said.

Urness died in 2006 and never knew that a $20 million permanent housing complex with 80 units for homeless individuals would be named for him. But staff members at Compass Housing Alliance, which built Nyer Urness House, insisted on it. They had seen Urness extend that arm.

From 1989 to his death, Urness was chaplain of the Compass Center in Pioneer Square, the flagship of the nonprofit homeless alliance in Seattle. He had shown them how to listen, honor and offer help to homeless people if conversation allowed, but never to impose it.

Urness would have been relieved that finally there was a permanent home specifically for the hard-core homeless people he loved so much — those on the streets for years, the haunted veterans, the ex-cons, the abused and the abusers, and the mentally ill.

Home for many
Urness would have extended that arm to Natasha Jordan, 35, a resident of Nyer Urness House, which recently opened. In shelters for vast periods of her life, Jordan suffers from depression and diabetes.

“Any kind of abuse you can think of, that’s what happened to me,” she said, tenderly holding a kitten she had just found.

Nyer Urness House is based on the “housing first” concept of addressing homelessness. Clients first receive housing and then are provided services, the idea being that stable housing allows those services to take hold.

For Jordan, that miracle is happening. With its on-site clinic, she is now able to control her diabetes, a first. With its case managers, she’s taking small steps away from the mental and emotional edge. 

“I like little, tiny changes,” said the house’s program manager, Kim Sather (no relation to Demar Sather), who’s known Jordan for two decades. 

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