Pastor Rick Cole reflects on homeless living

The Capital Christian Center leader shares his experiences on the streets

SN&R featured Pastor Rick Cole on its cover in 2008. Last month, he spent two weeks on the streets to raise money for wintertime shelters.

SN&R featured Pastor Rick Cole on its cover in 2008. Last month, he spent two weeks on the streets to raise money for wintertime shelters.


Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.

Most people know that Pastor Rick Cole spent half of last month living homeless. His goal was to raise $100,000 for the region’s Winter Sanctuary shelter program, which he achieved, in part because the media covered Cole’s experience in a high-profile way. But now the Capital Christian Center leader is back home with his family and church, and he’s had time to reflect on this unique life experience. What’s he thinking? SN&R sat down with Cole to talk about his two weeks of homelessness.

How did the idea come about?

I didn’t actually tell anybody about it [right away], because I’m thinking to myself, “That sounds kind of crazy.” Like I might not be thinking clearly.

What was the response of your congregation?

That first day, there was a feeling like, “Are you kidding?” Kind of a shock, of sorts, but at the same time they also resonated with it. “That’s really out of the box—but we’re with you.”

Did you have any cash when you first hit the streets?

Day one, I left church, came through my office with my credit cards and my keys and walked out the door, walked … to the light-rail station and I just took what I had in my wallet, which was $60.

Sacramento on $4 a day?

Yeah, for two weeks. That’s about what it equated to.

What did you do that first 24 hours?

The one thing I planned was—since I’m really a novice and never really done this before—was to go to the mission, Union Gospel Mission, because I know what they do there. I’d never been there, but I know what they do there, and there’s safety in a sense.

You mentioned that it was the worst service you’ve ever seen.

They are wonderful people … but the approach was real harsh. [The sermon] was real coming-at-you with, “You got yourself in this mess, and I’m going to tell you some things that you don’t want to hear, but you need to hear them anyway.”

What were you thinking about at 10 p.m. that night, lying in the bunk bed on your first homeless day?

“Why did I decide to do this again?”

I also felt there were so many things—I can’t tell if what I’m feeling is just me, and I don’t know if I can fully relate to how a person would feel if they truly were homeless. I just knew that this is my first day of being not attached to my comforts and conveniences, and I’m out here and it’s pretty raw.

I found the more nights that I was out, the less nervous I became—although I felt like I still needed to guard myself to a degree. It became more of a normal, a new normal. … I actually found there was really a kind of feeling of family among the homeless people.

Tell me about where you slept most nights.

We went down an alley and found there’s an abandoned building, and behind it was a wooden fence that kind of closed in a real small courtyard in the back of this abandoned building. The wooden fence had a couple of loose slats, and we got inside and found that someone had lived in there, but it didn’t appear that they were there now. There were clothes that had been left there. There was paraphernalia that was not good stuff. … That night I woke up a number of times, because there were people walking up and down the alley at 2 a.m. in the morning, diving through the Dumpster. You wake up. It startled me. You’re not sure if they are going to see where you are. What are they doing? And then they would pass.

You visited the river as well?

That night at the river, a couple of the people with me didn’t sleep well, because there were people walking by us. We were probably 5 feet from the river’s edge, and there were people walking between us and the river several times that night. There was a couple of guys that were with me that said they were concerned a couple of times. There were a couple of guys that looked a little tweaked out. Nothing escalated, ever.

How is the Rick Cole then different from the one that came back?

It’s so easy to get into the groove of life we’re in. And we categorize homeless people as people we can’t really help, like they deserve what they got. … There is a large segment of the homeless population that doesn’t want to stay in homelessness; they’re looking for a way out. They need some help, somebody to point the way to job training, point the way to rehab if they’re stuck in drugs and alcohol, to point the way to shelter. There’s a lot of success stories within the care of homelessness of seeing people getting on their feet again. … They’re not bad people.

You talked of action, so let’s talk about the church. How do you think this experience will change your church?

Hopefully, I can influence others to not let that be our first reaction to everything, to judge. But to be more concerned and compassionate. …

These are hard problems to solve. I’m clear on that. Through my experience, I didn’t come away from it with a bunch of answers. I came away from it with a lot of compassion, and a lot of desire to engage in the process differently to try to find those solutions.

In your mind, would Jesus be saying, “Let’s rescind tax cuts to the wealthy so we can help the poor”?

I think if that’s an avenue that would enable us to help the poor, it’s certainly worth exploring.