by Steve Pleich
In previous articles about the issues confronting homeless persons in Santa Cruz County, we talked about the lack of housing in Santa Cruz and the pressing need for shelter to provide safe, restful, overnight spaces for our 3,500 people experiencing homelessness. While the civic, business and governmental response has been virtually nonexistent, local faith communities are stepping up to meet the challenge.
The Association of Faith Communities (AFC) of Santa Cruz County established the Faith Community Shelters Program in the winter of 2012, and the AFC Board of Directors provides space and administration. The board includes representatives from Calvary Episcopal Church, Trinity Presbyterian Church, The Circle Church, Peace United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church.
The shelter program currently operates seven nights per week and shelters 20-23 people each night of the week. The churches provide an evening meal as part of an ongoing community meal or as a special meal for the overnight guests. A take-out breakfast is offered in the morning.
But in addition to providing overnight shelter, the underlying mission of Faith Community Shelters (FCS) is to form “communities” of people experiencing homelessness within the program itself.
Father Joel Miller, Pastor of Calvary Episcopal Church and one of the founding members of FCS, explains it this way: “One of the great teachings of faith is the value of ‘gathering together.’ In our shelters, we want to create an atmosphere of coming together for the common good and for the support of the entire group.”
While the provision of safe shelter is a cornerstone of the program, the evening meal served each night provides more than just food. It is an opportunity to create an even broader community of faith and hope.
Mel Nunes, one of three coordinators for the program, believes that a nurturing and supportive community can also open the door for participation by the community at large, and the involvement of the broader community is essential to the growth and sustainability of the program.
Nune says, “Members of the community have been incredibly generous in bringing and serving food for our evening meals. But our hope is that people who live in the neighborhoods surrounding each nightly shelter will feel comfortable enough to come by and ‘take a meal’ with our community — actually take the time to sit and talk to the people in our shelter program about the challenges of homelessness.
“But this is not a one-way conversation. Just as important are the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of the neighbors themselves. In this way, we can form the broader community that is the foundation of understanding.”
The community of people within the program is, if you will excuse the theological reference, truly a “coat of many colors.” The groups include senior women, middle-aged working men, an African American family of four and a Hispanic family of six. Each plays their part in the preparation of the meals, the maintenance of each parish hall and the multitude of day-to-day chores that make up the life of the shelter residents.
And what of their voices and thoughts? Jeanie, a senior single woman, says, “I am no longer afraid for my own safety nor hesitant to commit myself to the family of people within the shelter. And I am far less uncomfortable walking through the neighborhoods of each shelter. Maybe our community can make a difference simply by our being here and becoming a part of this.”
Clive, who has been a participant in the program from the beginning, explains it like this. “It’s not a perfect community, but show me one that is. We are part of an organic process and every day brings its challenges. But I know that we can be a working and successful model that other shelters can follow.”
And this reflects the goal of Faith Community Shelters as the program moves into the future. It is hoped that this community-based model can inspire other faith-based organizations to participate and create additional seven-night shelter programs.
Ten of these programs could shelter, feed and support as many as 200 currently unsheltered residents in Santa Cruz County; 20 could shelter as many as 400. That is still a long way from the dream of providing shelter for all those who want and need it in our community, but it would be a significant step in that direction.
Pastor Steve Defields-Gambrel of the Circle Church which hosts two nightly shelters, says it best: “The people in our shelter program are receiving from us the gift of support and community. But they are also giving us the gift of hope — hope that want and need can be transformed into joy and generosity. And the hope, perhaps the prayer, that this gathering can truly bring us all together as a community.”
Steve Pleich is an Advocate with the Santa Cruz Homeless Persons Advocacy Project.