Local association of faith groups helps the homeless with straightforward services
For more than four years, the Arredondo family struggled in and out of homelessness in Watsonville, sleeping in their Chevy Suburban when they could not make rent.
But things began to turn around for them two months ago, when the husband, wife and three children found shelter through the Interfaith Satellite Shelter Program (ISSP), a local church-based emergency shelter program first initiated in the 1980s. The program was dormant for most of the last decade, but was revived last February by The Association of Faith Communities (AFC) in Santa Cruz, a collaboration of church pastors, church members and activists dedicated to serving the homeless.
After gaining reliable shelter through the ISSP, mother Julianna and daughter Guillermina were able to land jobs at Threshhold Enterprises, and are saving as much as possible for their long-sought permanent home.
“I filled out the card for the Macy’s Make A Wish Foundation,” Guillermina says, “and I wrote down ‘All I want is a home.’” To this her mother quickly adds, “So did I.”
In the meantime, the Arrendondos say they are thankful for the support and assistance ISSP has provided. On a recent Sunday night, as the family settles in at The First Congregational Church on High Street with around 20 other people receiving shelter from the program, Julianna gestures to the other homeless people and says, “I feel we are like family, and we try to help each other out. Everybody is respectful … It’s not easy to find such good people who run the program.”
The ISSP is one of a growing number of AFC efforts being put forward as temperatures dip lower and the weather gets wetter.
The reenergized ISSP is currently coordinating night-by-night shelter with five participating churches that open up their facilities to provide shelter one night per week for about 20 homeless persons.
The ISSP moves bedding, food and supplies between churches five nights a week, cleaning up and securing each facility in the morning. Because of cost and liability, the project does not provide transportation for the homeless clients to the churches.
“It’s a low-overhead, hands-on, pilot program that gets people off the street and out of harm’s way,” says Ian MacKay, the ISSP project director who is affiliated with Calvary Episcopal Church. “We will soon have seven churches in the program, providing shelter seven nights a week. Keeping it small and keeping it simple is the key.”
Reverend Joel Miller, Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church (known as “Father Joel at the Red Church”) in Downtown Santa Cruz, chairs the AFC Steering Committee.
“For me, the operative word in this program is ‘community’—the program is about building community, trust and cooperation among the group of homeless people we are serving, and this is no small thing helping them rebuild their lives,” Miller says.
Miller and program director MacKay admit homeless people to the ISSP program after screening and approval. “They must be able to function as sober, peaceable individuals who are responsible for their behavior,” Miller says. “It’s important that our participants be able to cooperate as part of a community. Over time, this community begins to assume responsibility for the success of the program as a whole.”
Most of the homeless served by the ISSP are single men, who may or may not be looking for work or making concrete plans for the future. In a discussion at the AFC Steering Committee meeting on Thursday, Dec. 6 at Calvary Episcopal Church about possible conditions for ongoing enrollment in the program, such as seeking employment and permanent housing, Jim Weller, a community minister at First Congregational Church, made his views clear on any requirements or “conditionality” of services provided by ISSP.
“As progressive Christians, our calling is to alleviate suffering where we find it, and to serve the immediate needs of the most needy people, unconditionally,” Weller said to pastors and lay people attending the meeting.
“After immediate needs are met,” Weller went on, “these folks should be able to focus on longer term goals, and most are already doing that, but it’s not reasonable to make this a requirement before some basic needs are met.”
Franklin Williams, longtime homeless activist, UC Santa Cruz instructor and director of the Service Learning Program at Kresge College, praises the AFC and the ISSP in particular as a “reality-based, grassroots response” to the crisis of homelessness. This crisis has deepened, according to Williams, as state and local funding for shelters and services has been drastically cut since the onset of the recession four years ago, just as the need for these services began increasing.
“Homelessness and gender issues are the civil rights issues of our time,” Williams says. “And just like the civil rights struggle of the ’60s, churches are the key to support the community in hard times. Churches help sustain the fight with a positive spirit of human benevolence, and they have the ability to create a real social safety net.”
He finds programs like ISSP ever more important as community concerns and actions regarding homelessness increase. In the past year, the City of Santa Cruz executed a police-led eradication of homeless campsites, and, following some incidents of homeless violence, community action groups like Take Back Santa Cruz have increased in size and mobilized in an effort to rid Santa Cruz of homelessness. Williams points to these as examples of what he sees as anti-homeless backlash in the community. While ISSP and other grassroots efforts are helpful, Williams disputes the claim that the city has too many homeless services as it is, or that its existing homeless services attract homeless people to the area. Contrary to popular belief, Williams points out that less than 20 percent of homeless persons in the county receive any services, according to the Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey.
“It seems to be all about image,” Williams says. “Santa Cruz doesn’t want to appear any more ‘homeless friendly’ than it already is.”
Another longtime homeless advocate, Steve Pleich, director of the Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project, recent candidate for city council and an active member of the AFC, agrees.
“The idea that Santa Cruz is something of a Mecca for homeless services, and therefore a magnet for the homeless, is just not borne out by the facts,” Pleich says. The 2011 Homeless Census and Survey that found 67 percent of the homeless lived in the county prior to becoming homeless, an increase of 5 percent from 2009.
Pleich is assisting with the development of another low-cost, potentially high-impact emergency shelter program under development by the AFC called the Recreational Vehicle Guest Parking Program. This program will monitor the “vehicular homeless” parking overnight, safely and in accordance with the rules of the program, in the parking lots of participating churches.
Yet another program under way via the AFC is the Socks for People in Need (Spin) Program, in which newly purchased socks are donated in well-marked SOX BOXes at participating churches, and distributed through existing church and shelter clothing and food distribution outlets. The AFC is also considering a clean blanket donation project to assist those at the Emergency Winter Shelter at the armory.
Speaking about the ISSP, Miller is optimistic that other churches and faith communities in the larger Santa Cruz area will become involved in providing shelter. “We hope this program will grow slowly and organically,” Miller says. “And retaining the small group community building aspect is critical.”
More information about the Association of Faith Communities is available at the website.