Take a breath: SPiN Café: Good coffee, better listening

“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”

When Michele Hines asks, it’s sincere. And she doesn’t even mention the free stuff you get with it: Two listening ears. And respect for your concerns.

As executive director of Oak Harbor’s SPiN Café, Hines listens to a lot of concerns. She sees them on social media, she hears them on phone calls and at community meetings. Crime, drugs, mental illness. Property values. And the ubiquitous “what happened to the Oak Harbor I used to know?”

“I feel that last question,” Hines says. “I’ve been here since 1978.”

So, what happens when Hines buys you that cup of coffee?

“I listen. I ask questions, I clarify and validate their concerns. I let them speak their heart.” She finds that people appreciate the chance to be heard, to share their ideas and, quite often, their fears. But, she says, “I don’t push my agenda.”

She may not push it, but make no mistake, Hines has an agenda. It’s her job to further SPiN Café’s mission: Serving People in Need. For over ten years, SPiN has been a respite from the weather and a safe place to be treated with the dignity every human deserves.

SPiN Café welcomes dozens of guests on a typical day, people who may be homeless, or who may have substance abuse issues or mental illness. There’s no single reason people end up spending their days at SPiN, or their nights at the Haven overnight shelter. There are as many stories as there are guests in the room.

Hines works tirelessly to engage the community face-to-face. She attends chamber meetings, reserves booth space at local events and festivals, and meets with churches, where she has found tremendous support. It’s networking that pays no immediate dividends, but bit by bit she sees citizens accept that SPiN is a necessary community asset.

“Here in Oak Harbor, homelessness is a reflection of society as a whole. It’s more visible. There’s no place to hide. And, much as we don’t like seeing the problem in our community, we can’t just pack people up and ship them off somewhere else.”

Hines pauses, mid-discussion. “You know this isn’t just about me, right?” She describes the cadre that has rallied to SPiN’s mission. From Island County Human Services to dozens of local churches, individual donors, paid staff, volunteers and a strong relationship with the Oak Harbor Police, Hines knows she can’t do this alone.

Even with that team surrounding her, supporting the mission, Hines still sees and understands her biggest barrier: fear. She notes the stigma of simply being a guy on a sidewalk with a suitcase or an overloaded backpack. That guy knows a lot of people are afraid of him, even though people living in poverty are far more likely to be victims of crime than they are to commit a crime.

“Our guests aren’t scary. They just want to be treated as human. They deserve to be seen as real people, real individuals. Seen, by us, without us looking through them.”

A few years back, Hines could not have seen herself in this role. Her not-too-long-ago self could well have been the one questioning SPiN, not the one listening. She smiles and tells of a local leader calling her the most liberal conservative he knows. She took it as a high compliment.

“When I first volunteered with SPiN, through my church, I took a businesslike approach. I just thought, I can straighten out these books and make this work. It wasn’t ideological.” Offered the executive director position in 2021, Hines reflected on her Christian faith. “We’re called to take care of others. To be kind, to reach out to the sick and the hungry. SPiN does just that, and we try to enable people to be free of whatever is holding them back.”

SPiN, like similar organizations everywhere, has its passionate supporters. And it has detractors just as passionate. Hines says both sides often miss the daily detail SPiN staff has to work with, just to get people back on their feet through a bewildering maze of things most of us take for granted.

“Life’s complicated. It’s hard to navigate, even for those of us with solid families and stable income. Imagine you have none of those things, plus, you’re mentally ill, or recently out of prison, or recovering from addiction, or just never built the skill set to deal with real-world responsibilities. To get a driver’s license, apply for a job, provide references, pass a background check, open a bank account, build a credit record, rent a room… it’s overwhelming for so many of our guests. We bring individuals along. One by one. It’s all about baby steps.”

Those steps are typically so tiny that Hines estimates about half of SPiN’s guests are long-term, spending days at SPiN and nights at The Haven. “It sounds sad. But they’re safe. And that’s most important.”

And when just one person breaks the cycle, lands a regular job and finds a stable place to live?

“Oh my gosh, that’s… just huge.”

Even when victories seem so rare, even knowing we may never solve poverty or substance abuse or mental illness or homelessness, Michele Hines knows one thing for sure. And she says this as a loyal child of Oak Harbor.

“SPiN Café is good for this community. It’s an asset. And it’s an opportunity for us to be known as a city that cares for others.”

Meanwhile, stop by. You’ll get more than just a cup of coffee.

William Walker’s monthly “Take a Breath” column seeks paths to unity on Whidbey Island in a time of polarization. Walker lives near Oak Harbor and is an amateur author of four unpublished novels, hundreds of poems, and a stage play. He blogs occasionally at www.playininthedirt.com.