One Parish’s Engagement with its Homeless Neighbors

by Jill Wallerstedt

The morning begins as most do: friends coming for breakfast. A table spread with toast, peanut butter, jelly, butter, honey, bagels, cereal and milk makes you want to fill your belly, then have a cup of coffee or tea and chat about what's going on around our small town.

We are part of St. Brigid Fellowship, an outreach to the homeless here in Isla Vista, California. To be homeless is to be nameless, avoided, shunned, blamed, hungry and exposed to the elements. Each morning that St. Brigid's opens its door, every visitor is known by name, has a place to belong, and finds friends, acceptance, food, clothing and help getting out of any situations they wish to leave.

Isla Vista is a densely-packed, square-mile beach-side community which abuts the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). It is home to students from UCSB and Santa Barbara City College, who make up 85 percent of the population, as well as homeowners, low-income workers, and homeless (many of whom prefer the term "unhoused" because Athe earth is our home.")

Neighboring Santa Barbara deserves its reputation as a beautiful haven for the wealthy, lying between scenic foothills and the Pacific Ocean, and blessed with nearly year-round sunshine. For the not-so-wealthy, the limited housing and high cost of living make it difficult to make ends meet. Isla Vista and Goleta offer lower cost housing, but even so, a one bedroom apartment in Isla Vista rents for $1,100 a month. Students who rent on the nicest, beach-side streets pay $850 each for the privilege of sharing a bedroom with an ocean view.

Many of the unhoused come to Isla Vista because it is a small community and easy to navigate. The parks are their hang-outs. It's illegal to sleep in the parks or in vehicles anywhere in Isla Vista at night, so a lot of sleeping happens during the day. Those with income are eligible for low-cost housing, but the waiting time is two to five years once you apply. The existing shelters are almost always full. There are no social services available here: the nearest ones are six miles away and the rest are in downtown Santa Barbara, twelve miles away. To survive, those without income or government benefits get money for food and alcohol by panhandling (or "spanging spare changing) or collecting cans and bottles to recycle for money.

St. Athanasius Antiochian Orthodox Church is near the heart of Isla Vista on a parcel of land surrounded by these parks. Our parish has been here since the early 1970s, long before we became Orthodox converts in 1987. We had a monthly food distribution for the poor for many years and have served Christmas breakfast for many years since.

In 1999 a group of Protestant volunteers asked if they could use our church kitchen to serve a weekly meal to the homeless on Thursday nights. They brought pre-cooked meals to our stove-less kitchen, set tables up outside, held a Bible study and then served dinner. I remember looking at the meeting on the patio, and thinking how nice it would be if they came into Vespers with us.

When this group could no longer provide meals, Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges, our assistant pastor, took over. He moved the meal night to Monday and served one-pot soups and stews he cooked at home and hamburgers he grilled on the church barbecue. Attendance grew, perhaps because the only overtly religious elements to the dinners were the prayer beforehand and the cook's clerical collar.

Fr. Jon got to know Aour neighbors on the streets," as he calls them, and earned their trust. He heard their stories, made friends, helped where he could. They started to drop by his office on the church property during the week, and eventually, his other church work suffered. At the time, I was looking for a new job, and I was blessed to be offered a full-time job by the church in 2005: half-time raising money for our church school, St. John of Damascus Academy, and half-time working as assistant to Fr. Jon in his various duties.

Within a few months we realized that our work on the streets needed its own office. We rented space in the next-door medical clinic with a room for my office, a sitting area and supply closets, and a meeting room where mental health workers, job counselors and other providers could meet with us and our "clients."

We opened the doors three mornings a week for drop-ins. Fr. Jon-Stephen named the ministry after St. Brigid, the Irish saint who was a compatriot of St. Patrick's and who is commemorated both east and west. The scroll on her icon reads: "To care for the poor; To lighten everyone's burden; To comfort the suffering." This became our motto. The church agreed to a modest budget for our ministry.

Fr. Jon continued to see our neighbors in his office, but he was able to refer the simpler, day-to-day needs to me. The work started slowly. I handed out hygiene supplies, sleeping bags, coats, bus tokens, rain gear, and socks which were purchased by the church or donated. We offered the use of our telephone for calls and messages, and our address for applying for benefits and receiving mail. We served coffee. I met people and established friendships. I learned street names (Pirate, Wolf, Leprechaun, Veg-man) and their real names. I learned how to respond to angry outbursts as well as abject misery. I laughed and cried with people. I heard what it was like to be on the streets: stories of how others treated them, looked at them, how inequitable the system was. I became used to missing teeth, dirty hands, unkempt hair. The requests were so direct: AIt was freezing last night. Do you have anything warm to wear?" "I need a tarp to put over my sleeping bag when it rains." "How do I get on food stamps?" "Do you have clean socks?"

We never intended to meet every need, especially those that were addressed by other organizations in Santa Barbara. We installed a rack with brochures about local services. From the start we were blessed to have the presence of Jennifer Ferraez, a parishioner who is also a Santa Barbara County Mental Health Outreach Worker for the Homeless. She arranged weekly visits to St. Brigid as part of her outreach, and taught me about the resources available in our community. She also provided the mental health assessments, referrals and counseling so many of our people needed. She is my sounding board and an ever-ready source of information.

As my unhoused friends started to trust me, they confided more. In this sometimes painful, personal exchange I heard about failed marriages, abusive childhoods, deep sorrows. I often felt overwhelmed. Prayer became a constant ally. I met people who were alcoholic or drug dependent, had mental illness, chronic medical conditions B and some with all three. I had my first face to face conversation with someone who was psychotic (he confided he was a superhero and offered to teach me to fly.) Most wanted housing, some lived in vehicles, others were happy on the streets if they could keep warm and fed.

I learned to make referrals for food stamps and general relief, how to help someone apply for SSI. Sometimes I couldn't help in any other way but to listen, and mostly this was the most important. A public health nurse visited once a week, and the clinic downstairs began to see homeless people without charge.

About a year into the work, we had to move while the clinic remodeled. Since the move was to be temporary, we rented a portable construction office for $125 a month, a large trailer that occupied four spaces in our parking lot. I hung yellow lace curtains in the windows, which were quite silly really. St. Brigid's new home quickly became known as "the dumpster with curtains."

In the narrow trailer I had two storage cabinets in the back, my desk, filing cabinet and computer in the middle, and a table in front across from the door for a coffee pot and a computer that people could use. We stored sleeping bags and blankets under a slanted, built-in drafting-table, and put the phone and reference books on top of it. Actually, this is all that's needed to start an outreach ministry - an open door, some basic supplies, an open heart.

Jennifer continued to come in once a week and to the Monday night dinners to help and teach. Fr. Jon-Stephen's office was still next door on the church property and he came by daily. People began to drop by in greater numbers, not just to get something they needed but to hang out and talk. A sense of community emerged.

Somewhere along the line I developed my two rules: the first is that St. Brigid's is a place of peace, a refuge from the streets, and that shouting, swearing and anger belonged elsewhere. (Some of the men who came in were so sensitive that if someone outside even used a loud voice in happy conversation, they would become upset and unable to talk.) The second rule was not to take coffee from the coffee pot before it finished brewing. I also inconspicuously monitored conversations and re-directed any that were inappropriate or disruptive.

We started serving peanut butter and jelly and bread with the coffee; then we got a toaster. The food table was outside the trailer. When it was cold we all wore coats. We jury-rigged a tarp outside that we could sit under when it rained, but we still got wet. One particularly rainy, blustery day, a friend got a large tarp out of her van and we all worked together to hang it around the church's Sunday awning. I learned how to make ties from pieces of torn t-shirt. It worked fairly well as the only rain shelter in the area that day. We used the trailer for two years, then found out that the medical clinic was sold and we could not return to our office there.

We recently moved into a larger trailer on the church property and now have the luxury of two rooms: one for an office, and the other for our food table, supplies, computers, chairs and beginning library. When it's sunny we use the deck outside and when it rains, we will even have a roof. What a concept!

We're now open five days a week for breakfast. With a grant we received we are hiring a 15-hour-a-week helper, Nikki Coalson, a young woman in our church. This means I can work with people in crisis while she makes sure everything runs smoothly. We are applying for other grants to expand our services.

I wish I had time to tell you the stories. Each person has his/her own, and together we have made new ones. Our team B all part time in the work B has made referrals for alcohol/drug detox, found people housing, gotten them benefits, seen them succeed, seen them relapse and start drinking again, shared joys, arranged reunions with family, had friends die.

The Monday night dinners have continued, drawing more people, some who never come in the mornings. Members of our church and the community help cook and serve, including doctors, nurses and politicians. There is now a group of UCSB pre-med students who have started a group called "Street Health Outreach". They also cook a Saturday morning breakfast once a month and do street rounds the other Saturdays.

St. Brigid Fellowship has become a community, and a unifying force in Isla Vista. Fr. Jon-Stephen works Athe big picture" to make connections with other agencies and publicize our work as well as continuing his personal relationships here. Fr. Jon carries a badge as Chaplain to the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department and several other agencies. On him, the badge is a bridge. He also has an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT-B) certification. All of us work together to solve homelessness one person at a time. We're part of Santa Barbara County's Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.

As for philosophy, we use an "incarnational model," meeting people on the streets as Jesus did, addressing immediate needs and starting relationships that can lead out of homelessness. This is not a one-way ministry, us to them. All of us, both housed and unhoused, work together to solve problems.

When things are tough, we look at others as Mother Teresa did, as Christ in his distressing disguise, and do all with love. As St. John Kronstadt reminds us: "Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him; because evil is but a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement."

This work is a blessing. My faith has grown, as has my prayer life.

If you or your parish is considering starting an outreach ministry, just know that it can be done simply. The most important part is taking the time to listen and talk. Your ministry can be handing out socks or sack lunches in the park, or feeding people once a week, or giving gift certificates to fast food or grocery stores. Whatever it is, take the time to talk. Introduce yourself and ask their name. You would be surprised how meaningful just exchanging names is to a person who is used to being snubbed and ignored. Don't think you have to address all of the problems you will encounter - just do your part and listen to the Lord who will walk along side you and give you guidance, joy and peace.

Feel free to contact me, Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges, and Jennifer Ferraez at [email protected], or (805) 968-8028.

Better yet, join us for breakfast and a cup of coffee. We would love to meet you.

Jill Wallerstedt has lived in Isla Vista, California for 30 years. She lives in a house dedicated to St. Xenia with two roommates and works for St Athanasius Orthodox Church as a homeless outreach worker and a fund-raising professional. Her dream is to be a full-time writer and live in community.

Then and Now: Confessions of an Outreach Worker

Then, when I saw a homeless person, I saw the dishevelment, shuffling, and shopping cart. Now I see a person with a story. Not likely a happy story, but there might be some joy in it. Maybe grace.

Then I saw filth, poor hygiene, beards and thought, go to a shelter. Now I know that the street is safer for some people, and there are not enough beds to go around for the rest.

Then I noticed the skin sores and rashes, hacking coughs, missing teeth. Now I see the bigger problems: the ?structure resistance" keeping a person away from services; the bad receptions at health clinics; the perfunctory dismissals for inability to pay; the lack of dental providers even for those with benefits.

Then I saw the blank stares and the "off in their own world" look and thought mental illness. Now I know that it might be a sane defense against the constant stares and comments of others.

Then I thought, get a job. Now I know the devastation of untreated mental illness and substance abuse, the consequences of severe child abuse, the effects of 35 years in jail. I know that the simple lack of a shower and clean clothes can cost a person their job.

Then I asked, Why doesn't someone solve this problem? Now I ask - what is your name? Do you have somewhere safe to sleep? Are you warm enough? Do you want to talk?

Then I saw anonymous people, lumped together in my brain in the category "Avoid if at all possible, be kind if not able to avoid, keep your hand on your purse." Now I know Rainbow from Little Rick. I know how people get their street names: Nira Dave, Buckethead, Veg-man. More importantly I know their given names, the names I call them by. A name is the beginning of identity.

Then I thought all homeless were alike. Now I know that some avoid everyone, including other homeless people, while others find strength in numbers. I know who drinks to excess and who can hold their liquor, who I can count on for help and who will just use me. I know why the women are on the street and why they always have a boyfriend, no matter how bad he is.

Then I believed everyone's story. Now I take everything with a grain of salt until I can verify it.

Then I felt lower middle class, comparing myself to most others in Santa Barbara. Now, my car, roof, shower, washer, money, and health insurance seem like incredible wealth. Keys are a status symbol.

Then I wondered where brilliance and madness intersected and how to tell the difference. I still wonder.

Then I saw objects. Now I see individuals.

C Jill Wallerstedt

Fall 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 51