Sacramento-area churches find rewards – and glitches – in homeless shelter program

By Cynthia Hubert/Sacramento Bee

It would seem a match made in heaven.

This winter, in the first organized effort of its kind in Sacramento County, the down and out are spending their nights inside rotating houses of worship whose missions include service to the poor.

But the “nomadic shelter” program has its awkward moments.

Bus rides to deliver streetwise men and women from Loaves & Fishes, a homeless services agency north of downtown Sacramento, to sanctuaries in residential areas like Arden Arcade can take up to 90 minutes. Congregation members who never have worked so closely with homeless people in some cases are intimidated by their unkempt charges.

Homeless “guests” blanch at a ban against indoor and outdoor smoking, and some have smuggled alcohol and cigarettes in their clothing and backpacks. Scuffles occasionally erupt, and rule violators are sent away in taxis.

The program, part of a mosaic of services designed to house Sacramento’s homeless in the face of steep countywide budget cuts, is a work in progress, say organizers and participants. But most are hopeful it will continue in some fashion after its scheduled ending date March 31.

“It’s definitely a different feeling from the winter shelter at Cal Expo,” where homeless men and women spent their nights in a more institutional setting until last year, said Christie Holderegger of Volunteers of America, which coordinates the churches’ program along with Mayor Kevin Johnson’s Sacramento Steps Forward group. The Cal Expo program ended after Sacramento County slashed funding.

Using houses of worship is “more intimate and personal,” Holderegger said. “The homeless really get loved up at these churches. The fellowship has been wonderful.”

The intimacy can be uncomfortable at times. Tempers occasionally flare when guests jockey for precious sleeping and storage space. “I accidentally knocked over someone’s backpack one time and he went off. He yelled and threatened us,” said Megan Lamb, 19, a former drug addict who with her fiancé, Michael Benedict, has been taking part in the program. “I mostly just keep to myself and mind my own business.”

For volunteers who have embraced their congregation’s commitment to reach out to the poor, interacting one on one with homeless people can be alternately clumsy and heartwarming.

“It was overwhelming the first time, with the sleeping bags wall to wall on the floor,” said Linda Sparks, a retired schoolteacher, as she helped scrub the kitchen after serving dinner to homeless guests one evening at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Sacramento. “There were so many people, and they were leery when I first tried to talk to them.

“But the more I did, the more it changed my ideas about what it means to be homeless.”

One night, Sparks even volunteered to wash and massage the tired feet of St. Mark’s guests while listening to their stories. “I’m so glad that churches are doing this,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a gift.”

County funding shrank

In past years, the county spent as much as $700,000 for winter housing at Cal Expo. This winter, amid ongoing budget tightening, it came up with only $150,000 to pay for shelter beds for families.
The nomadic program is designed to serve single people and is being funded by donations and grants at a cost of about $23,000 per month, said Holderegger. The money pays for VOA staffing, transportation and other necessities, including sleeping bags for 80 to 100 people who nightly take refuge inside houses of worship from midtown Sacramento to Citrus Heights. Congregations provide volunteers and food.

For several nights each month, one of 18 participating faith communities welcomes homeless guests, each of whom gets a sleeping bag, a hot meal and breakfast the following day. Accommodations differ slightly at each location.

Some, like Capital Christian Center, have sprawling space, giant multimedia screens and security cameras. Other facilities are cramped and modest. Some congregations offer their homeless guests prayer services and others steer clear of religion. Most of the participants are Christian organizations, although one area mosque has played host.

Rick Cole, Capital Christian’s senior pastor, calls the nomadic program “a natural fit” for faith communities. “One of our abiding principles is taking care of widows and orphans and the poor,” he says. “We haven’t always abided by it, and this gives us the perfect opportunity to do it. I hope it is the wave of the future, because it really is rewarding.”

Before its funding disappeared, the Cal Expo winter shelter housed up to 200 people from November through March. Guests were subject to security pat-downs and electronic “wanding” when they arrived, and slept on bunk beds in a dormitory-like setting. The shelter rarely turned anyone away, regardless of issues such as mental illness or addiction. Smoking was permitted outside the building.

Nomadic shelter participants, by contrast, are carefully screened by VOA staffers. Those who fail to make the cut must scramble for a limited number of shelter beds elsewhere, or take their chances on the streets or at the constantly moving “Safe Ground” tent community.

“At Cal Expo, we had the staff to help de-escalate tensions and monitor things,” said Holderegger. “We are spread thin now, and we are in someone else’s house. We have to make sure that everyone is respectful.”

Before they can get a place on the bus each afternoon, homeless people interested in the nomadic program must talk with VOA screeners. They must be mentally stable and sign a pledge against engaging in violence, drinking alcohol or smoking at houses of worship. Pets are not allowed, and men and women have separate sleeping areas.

VOA staffers act as security monitors through the night, and boot anyone who violates the rules. About 80 people have been “eighty-sixed” from the program since it began in December for violations ranging from smoking to verbal threats, Holderegger said.

“There was a little bit of nervousness about this, but VOA has done a fantastic job of screening,” said Kevin Jenkins, facilities manager for St. Mark’s church, which has a history of serving the homeless in other programs. “But most people keep themselves in check. Overall I have been impressed with the quality and temperament of the guests.”

Pleasantly surprised

Anthony Johnson, 53, has been pleasantly surprised by the nomadic program. He spent nights at Cal Expo in past years and found it impersonal.
Johnson, a Vietnam veteran taking classes in cinematography, calls the religious shelter program “a blessing for people like me who have limited incomes. It’s 100 percent better than Cal Expo.”

On a recent night inside the social hall at St. Mark’s, Johnson flipped through a copy of Newsweek. Others chatted, filled out paperwork, munched on snacks and played dominoes.

James Dollson, 33, played a lively tune he calls “Temporary Insanity” on the baby grand piano beneath the stage, where the women of the group had put down their sleeping bags.

When lights went out at 10, women and men were separated for privacy purposes. This, along with the smoking ban, seemed to be the most common gripe from participants.

“I want a cigarette before I go to bed. I want one when I wake up. I want one now. But I can deal with that,” said Lamb, the former drug user, as she sucked on a piece of hard candy.

“I like it here. I have seen people get eighty-sixed for sneaking out and smoking and drinking and doing drugs. I can’t afford to have that happen, so I’m playing by the rules.”

VOA enforces the smoking ban because some churches frown on the practice, and to limit neighborhood impact from loitering and trash, said Holderegger. VOA and churches have received zero complaints from neighborhood residents about the program, she said.

Dollson, who said he taught himself to play piano inside the electronics department of a Gemco store when he was a youngster, enjoys the variety of accommodations offered by religious congregations. “It’s exciting,” he said. “You have the suspense of going to different environments.”

At the local League of Associated Muslims, the menu for homeless guests includes lentil and curry dishes, and women and men are strictly forbidden from speaking to one another. Other congregations provide games. Some offer religious services, but none demands participation.

At Christmas time, Capital Christian volunteers organized a program that included tree decorating, singing and small gifts. Homeless people wrote Christmas cards to long-lost relatives, and volunteers researched addresses and mailed the missives.

Kaleo Lepisi, a burly VOA security worker, said the organization runs a tight ship at the churches. Although the atmosphere is generally calm, minor confrontations occur “almost every night,” he said.

On a recent evening at St. Mark’s, shortly after a guest experiencing stomach pains left in an ambulance, Lepisi leapt in to break up a brewing argument over noise and sleeping bag space.

He instructed one guest to pack his backpack and called a cab to take him back to Loaves & Fishes. He advised the man’s rival to chill out. “Don’t give anyone eyes or anything,” he said, as the man nodded.

Despite some glitches, Lepisi said he is a firm believer in the nomadic program, which by the end of February had served 443 individuals, many for repeat visits.

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think this is absolutely the right thing to do,” Lepisi said. “Money is tight and this population is growing. Churches need to open up their doors to the homeless.”

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