Just before Thanksgiving last year, Brad and Kim Lancaster of Shoreline, Washington, had a decision to make. Sixteen homeless people who had been camped outside for months at the church across the street, learned on a rainy night that the congregation could no longer host the encampment because their building had been sold. Everyone would have to leave.
“My wife and I drove around talking about it and our conversation went from naming the reasons why we couldn’t help to the reasons why we had to,” Brad, 62, an attorney, tells PEOPLE. “We have a roomy yard that was just sitting empty. And so we decided, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
The Lancasters told everyone at the camp that they were welcome to move their belongings to their secluded backyard. But with high winds blowing the rain in sideways, they allowed everyone – two homeless families, several couples and a few single men – to sprawl out in the television room, spare bedroom and screened porch of their cozy 770-square-foot home.
The next day, after the storm passed, they treated their guests to breakfast and helped them set up tents, telling everyone that they were welcome to stay as long as they liked.
But now, four months into their good deed, the Lancasters recently learned that their generosity has to come to an end.
After a few neighbors complained about the camp, the city of Shoreline informed the couple that local zoning regulations didn’t allow homeless camps on residential property. Brad paid $700 for a temporary use permit and convinced officials to allow homeless campers to stay until April 1, giving him time to find another church to take them in.
“We appreciate the Lancasters’ passion and desire to help their neighbors and look forward to working with them in the future to find ways to address homelessness in our community,” Eric Bratton, communications manager for the city of Shoreline, tells PEOPLE. “Numerous local churches have hosted tent cities in the past and will continue to do so in the future.”
Ten people are still with the Lancasters, grateful that the couple didn’t look the other way.
“Everyone here has nothing but serious love for these people – they’ve been a shining light and a true example,” says Aaron Ervin, 51, who became homeless last year after his marriage failed and he couldn’t keep a job due to struggles with depression.
“It’s beyond words what they’ve done,” he tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, and then they showed up and took me in. They’re like angels.”
About 25 people have stayed in the couple’s backyard off and on since that cold November night, and several people with health issues have stayed in the Lancasters’ spare bedroom, leaving Brad and Kim with a new appreciation for their plight.
“Since 2007, we’ve seen people spilling out of the downtown into the suburbs because they’ve been pushed out,” Brad tells PEOPLE. “Most of them work, but it’s a struggle to save enough for an apartment in Seattle, when a two-bedroom goes for between $1,200 and $1,800 a month.”
“We’ve allowed our society to become very wealthy and very poor, with not much in between,” he adds. “To me, that’s unacceptable.”
In the Lancasters’ yard, campers use tents donated by Camp United We Stand and have meals delivered by Greater Seattle Cares volunteers.
“They come in to use our bathroom, take a shower and do their laundry whenever they need to,” says Brad, “and we ran some power to the outside so they could plug in their electric blankets and charge their phones. We’ll be watching Downton Abbey and they’ll come in to brush their teeth and talk to us. It’s been a great experience.”
“This wasn’t on our agenda, but I’m so glad we did it,” Kim Lancaster, 55, who works as a paralegal, tells PEOPLE. “Some people say that we’re nuts. And if by ‘nuts’ they mean we’re not doing what is culturally normal, then that’s certainly true. We went from a quiet two-person household with a dog to a busy environment with a dozen or more people always coming and going.”
Now that their guests will soon be breaking camp and moving to the Haller Lake United Methodist Church in North Seattle for a three-month stay, the Lancasters are preparing to have a silent yard once again.
“We knew it couldn’t go on forever, but we’re so happy that we were able to help,” Brad tells PEOPLE. “I’m grateful to them – they’ve been caring to us and fun to be around. It’s been a great human experience.”