EUGENE, Ore. – A Eugene pastor is blending service and ministry in hopes of addressing the city’s daunting homeless crisis.
Gabe Piechowicz, better known to some in the community as Pastor Gabe, is not like most religious leaders. The former logger of nearly 20 years put down the ax in favor of the cross when he realized something in his life was missing.
“I grew up with zero religious or faith experience, exposure or interest,” Piechowicz said.
But in his thirties, he pursued religion, started attending church, and eventually became a graduate of Bushnell University in 2019 with a degree in pastoral Christian ministry. He interned at Westside Christian Church on Chambers Street and eventually became the pastor who oversaw its closure.
“[The church] had come to a season - as all organizations and churches do - where it was time for the doors to close now. Nothing lasts forever,” Piechowicz said.
But before the church closed, Pastor Gabe let some members of the unhoused community sleep on the property. He even started inviting others to sleep on the porch to stay out of the rain.
“That kind of led to an explosion of interest from the unhoused population. And before we knew it, it was like an I-5 rest stop,” Piechowicz said.
Once the group became too large, Piechowicz started working with Eugene Police and an agreement was reached. A pilot program allowed seven people to stay on the porch in exchange for community service in the surrounding neighborhood. The group met every Saturday, cleaning store fronts, picking up trash, and working together with businesses. In response to the effort, the businesses supplied landscape equipment and portable bathrooms for the church porch.
However, the church eventually closed, and the homeless moved to city-owned microsites. But for Pastor Gabe, the curtain on Eugene’s homeless crisis had been pulled back, and he wanted to do more.
He used some of the proceeds from the sale of the church to start Everyone Church in April, which places service to the unhoused at the center of its mission.
“Our key DNA is that we want to be fundamentally different than the traditional church,” Piechowicz said. “We're not centered around the Sunday corporate worship experience. We're centered around being the hands and feet of God in the community…. I feel we've been called to the work in the homelessness crisis in our community.”
To Pastor Gabe, the Sunday service happens in the streets, on any day of the week. The church does have office space in west Eugene, but it’s relatively small, and some of it is used to build tiny homes in partnership with another group – Carry it Forward.
Piechowicz said eventually he plans to grow the church to include more activities like bible study, a sober recovery program and ‘parties’ where members of the church can gather together for an afternoon of fun.
But for now, his focus is walking the streets, meeting the homeless where they live. On a Thursday morning in early September, Piechowicz was walking along Stewart Road in west Eugene. He acts as an unofficial liaison between homeless campers and the city and businesses that are tired of the impact the homeless have on them.
“We're trying to get in front of the RV camping situation in West Eugene. It’s very challenging,” Piechowicz said while standing in front of a row of RVs.
Piechowicz said the city reached a short-term deal with the RV campers in the area, allowing them to stay if they sign a contract with certain requirements. There are ground rules, like no drug and alcohol use. Sanitation services are provided to keep things clean.
“As you guys know, we got the hypersensitive situation with the businesses. They are concerned about the car – kind of how it's parked perpendicular to the curb,” he told a couple of campers who parked their vehicle protruding out into the street.
The campers readily agreed to fix the problem after Piechowicz brought it up. Further down the street, he told another man who had set up camp that he needed to leave. The deal with the city only allows for a limited number of RVs and no tent camping. The man agreed to move along.
Piechowicz uses a light and friendly touch with the campers, and often uses humor to diffuse tense situations.
“There's just so much pressure. It's like it needs to be released or the whole system is going to blow up right, just like a steam pipe system,” Piechowicz said.
Piechowicz said solving Eugene’s homeless crisis will be a community effort, and it won’t happen with his church alone.
“This is Eugene's effort. What we're doing is bringing everybody on the same page and creating through some sort of weird, humble reality and ability for everybody to work together in a very synergistic way. And it's messy and hard, but we're getting better at it,” Piechowicz said.