In tough times for all, these local shelters are working hard to keep roofs over heads.
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The Rescue Mission of Orange County
Habitat for Humanity of Orange County
Human Options Orange County
HomeAid Orange County
HomeAid’s Project Playhouse
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877.854.3594 :: Human Options hotline for
Poverty, hunger and homelessness don’t come to mind when thinking about Orange County. But with an estimated 35,000 people homeless, 70% of them families, five local shelters are doing their best to keep them off the streets.
Orange County Rescue Mission
As the proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Contrary to what most people think, that is not a quote from the Bible. Regardless, the OC Rescue Mission, a faith-based organization, has been proving it daily for 49 years. On what they like to call their campus, the Village of Hope, located on the former El Toro Marine Corps Base, the Rescue Mission helps everyone from homeless single men to destitute families regain their self-worth and become productive, healthy citizens again. “We provide a comprehensive plan to help people get back on their feet from situations like homelessness, hunger, drug addiction, and health issues. We complement that with a message of hope,” says Rescue Mission president Jim Palmer.
The people the Rescue Mission serves are called “students,” to reflect the fact that they are learning to become self-sufficient, not just asking for a handout, and they come from all walks of life, says Palmer. Though low-income families and drug and alcohol addicts are still common, thanks to the economic downturn, no one is immune to hunger and homelessness. “Today it’s everybody. We even have a Princeton graduate who was a former engineer in our facility right now,” he says. “This guy can’t go down to McDonald’s and get a job. The poor manager won’t hire him because he’s too intimidating. He’s worried he’ll take his job.”
Last year, because of the poor economy, demand for services increased anywhere from 33% to 50% while donations and funding went down. Still, by increasing the amount of volunteer hours and aligning themselves with schools such as UCI, which provides free psychiatric care, incredibly, the Rescue Mission has increased their service delivery by 21%.
The shining example of that is the Village of Hope, which houses 200 men, women and children. At the Village of Hope campus, they get a nice place to live, healthcare, counseling, dental care, legal aid, and, probably most importantly, a chance to rebuild their dignity and life. But it’s not a free ride. From day one, they’re given a job on campus, whether it’s in the kitchen, warehouse or another part of the campus.
And it seems to be working. There’s an 85% success rate for single men who stick to the program for one year. For women with children it’s usually a two-year program that’s needed. It’s a model built on helping people help themselves, says Palmer. “We believe that social welfare has been played out in the U.S. for the last 50 years and has not produced any successes,” he says. “My background is as an entrepreneur, so we thought we’d try something no one has tried. We’ve created something that really works for people.”
Habitat for Humanity of Orange County
That helping hand spirit is also the driving motto of another local institution: Habitat for Humanity of Orange County, which gives low-income families a chance to own their own home.
“We’re giving a hand up, not a hand out,” says Gladys Hernandez, manager of public and government relations for Habitat for Humanity of Orange County. “The families that apply for our homes have steady incomes, are credit worthy and are legal residents of the U.S. We give them the tools to attain the American dream of home ownership.”
As everyone knows, even with the hit in housing prices, the Orange County housing market is still fairly pricey. So, by considering people with an income of 30% to 80% of the median Orange County income, Habitat for Humanity gives them a shot at building their own home. Literally. In addition to putting 1% down and getting a 0% loan, families also put in 500 hours of work actually building their home, along with volunteers, professionals, supervisors, and contractors. “It’s what we call the sweat equity,” says Hernandez.
To make the dream come true, Habitat for Humanity gets companies as sponsors. Each home sponsorship is a $250,000 commitment, with homes costing the future homeowner up to $350,000. Up to 20% of the building materials are also donated.
Since 1990, Habitat for Humanity for Orange County has built 169 homes locally (and 355 homes around the world through their ties with Habitat International). And this is no potential get-rich-quick scheme. Habitat for Humanity retains the rights of first refusal for any family wanting to sell, and buys the home back based at a pre-determined price.
So how do they measure success? The next generation, says Hernandez. “We want to help their children break that cycle of poverty,” she says. “Success for us is that their children won’t qualify for a Habitat home. We want them to get an education, go to college and qualify for a home in the open market.”
In the late 1970s, Vivian Clecak was heading up a mental health department clinic in Laguna Beach when she and a few peers researched the incidents of domestic violence among their clientele. They were shocked at the results: one in three were victims. The goal to help became overwhelming and in just a few years, Clecak, along with Carolyn Churm, Anne Wright and Margaret Thoreau, opened the first Human Options shelter for battered women.
Today, Clecak is still as passionate as ever. Unfortunately, she has just as many opportunities to help as ever. In fact, historically, domestic violence rises during times of economic downturns, and this one is no exception. “During economic stress, people are stressed and their coping skills are down,” says Clecak. “And if their partner has issues with managing anger, that will show up.”
Making it worse is the fact that especially during a recession, women are afraid to leave abusive husbands. They’re worried they won’t be able to support themselves, and, if they have them, their children.
And, like the homeless population, it’s also true that the victims can be anyone. “People like to think it only happens to people unlike themselves, but every time I speak, no matter what the [community demographics] are, two or three women will come to me and tell me they’re in an abusive relationship but don’t want anyone to know. It’s the only crime in which the victim is more ashamed than the perpetrator,” says Clecak. To prove her point, Clecak talks about one client she had a while back. It’s common for women to show up at the shelter with nothing but a trash bag full of belongings, so when one lady did so, it was no surprise – until she pulled a nice briefcase out of the bag. “She was a family law attorney,” says Clecak.
But if they come with no self-esteem and a trash bag of whatever they could grab, they often leave with a new outlook and promise for their future. Ninety percent of the graduates of Human Options’ emergency shelter and transitional living program are violence-free one year or more out. This is a huge success since many domestic violence victims return to their abusive partners.
More to the point, most graduates work toward educating themselves and finding or resuming careers, with average incomes going from $5,000 per year to $40,000 per year. These are women with new, productive roles in society, as Clecak has witnessed firsthand. “Four years ago my husband was having surgery at Hoag Hospital and I was spending the night. One of the nurse assistants had been in our shelter a few years before. She had no skills, but she went to school and now has a good job at Hoag and her life has completely changed,” says Clecak. “I didn’t recognize her right away, so she said, ‘Don’t you remember me? You were my angel, now I’ll be yours.’”
HomeAid Orange County
It might seem an odd fit for commercial builders to be servicing the homeless community, but don’t tell HomeAid Orange County that. They’ve been doing it successfully for 22 years and so far have worked with 25 nonprofits, the Rescue Mission and Human Options among them.
Basically, HomeAid OC is the building industry’s charitable wing that helps build shelters and homes for the homeless. “We went to people in the building industry and asked them to do what they do professionally, charitably,” says Scott Larson, HomeAid OC’s executive director. That translates into finding professional builders to help places like Human Options and the Rescue Mission during every phase of their build, from the permitting to the design and building stages. Sometimes, it’s providing the service pro bono, sometimes it’s getting the materials at large discounts. “On average, over the last 22 years, we’ve been able to work on projects for 60 cents on the dollar, saving the [nonprofit organization] 40%,” says Larson. “We’ve gotten as high as 85% of the project donated.” But again, due to the faltering economy, especially in the housing and building industry, that has been a greater than normal challenge in the past five years, says Larson.
That doesn’t mean they’re abandoning the homeless. In fact, far from it, as evidenced by HomeAid OC’s Project Playhouse fundraiser, which has raised $5.5 million since 1992 and is on track to add another half a million dollars this year with more sponsorships than ever. The event has builders design and construct custom playhouses, called fantasy cottages, and usually large and luxurious enough to be the best “treehouse” in a city. These go on display (currently at Irvine Spectrum Center through November 11) and then are auctioned off. Past playhouses have featured everything from flat screens to front lawns and garnered tens of thousands of dollars each.
The event is more than just a display of whimsical architecture, says Larson. “The community doesn’t get to see the quality of the homes and shelters we build. Project Playhouse gives our builders the chance to show the quality they put into building the shelters. They get to show what they do best. It’s also a great platform for us to talk to the community about the tremendous need. Finally, it’s raised quite a bit of money over the years to help build more shelters.”
Amazingly, sadly, many of the homeless population’s most vulnerable often fall through the cracks and have few places to go. That’s where WISEPlace comes in. Formerly the South Orange County YWCA, WISEPlace is one of the few comprehensive shelter programs in the county that takes women without children.
Taking in 25 women at a time for a six month- to year-long program, WISEPlace has helped women as young as 18 and as senior as 85. Their mission is simple, says Kathleen Davis Bowman, WISEPlace’s executive director: “We pride ourselves on giving these women their lives back. We give them the opportunity to start over in a healthy environment.”
But the program is much more than a roof and three meals a day. WISEPlace provides homeless women with case management, financial empowerment management, life skills classes, individual and group psychological counseling, and more, all tailored to their specific needs. “We don’t have a cookie-cutter approach,” says Bowman. “The shelter, food and clothing are just the beginning. We really work on all aspects of each woman.”
Unfortunately, the need has only gotten greater in the past few years, while the resources to help have shrunk with the economy. There are more women who need services, and less people in a position to help through donations.
“The women come from all over Orange County, even places with which you don’t ordinarily associate homelessness, like Newport Beach, Irvine and other upscale communities,” says Bowman. In fact, over half of the women in the program have a college education. “You think you know what a homeless woman looks like or what her profile is, but it’s really across the board,” says Bowman.
A full quarter of the women come from domestic violence situations while many others have substance abuse histories. However, to qualify for WISEPlace, those women must have completed a rehab program and be clean and sober.
Finally, for women who are the victims of chronic homelessness, along with another complicating condition such as a mental illness or a history of addiction, WISEPlace has a follow-up program. It’s a five-bedroom house in which women can stay for up to two years.
“It takes a long time to unravel the effects of chronic homelessness,” says Bowman.
Fortunately, that doesn’t stop WISEPlace from trying.