Father Dennis Kriz, the pastor of St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Fullerton, has become a regular presence at Fullerton City Council meetings and community forums where the issue of homelessness is being discussed.
St. Philip’s is one of the few churches in town that allows homeless people to sleep on their grounds overnight. The reason, according to Kriz, is simple.
“If there’s no place for them to go, I can’t send them away,” he says.
Father Dennis Kriz with Robert, one of the homeless individuals he is allowing to stay at the church. Robert became homeless after the landlord of the home he was renting died and the property was taken over by the man’s brother who continued collecting rent but didn’t pay the mortgage. “When the house was foreclosed on,” said Robert, “we had to get out and didn’t have enough money saved up to get another place, so we ended up out here.”
As Orange County’s homeless population has increased in recent years, and especially following the clearing of the Santa Ana Riverbed earlier this year, cities across the county, including Fullerton, are struggling with how to provide shelter.
Currently, there is simply not adequate shelter space to house Orange County’s homeless population.
As city and county officials struggle to build shelters and homeless housing, another part of the equation is the faith community. As it turns out, Fullerton congregations have been participating in an Interfaith Shelter Network (ISN) since it was founded by the Orange County Homeless Issues Task Force in 1988, according to Barbara Johnson, a Task Force boardmember at that time.
This collaboration between churches, non-profits, and the city first began when Alex Smith, who worked for the City of Fullerton, noticed people coming to city hall for help but being turned away. He went to FIMA (Fullerton Interfaith Ministerial Association) to present the idea of a network of religious institutions that could provide food, shelter and other needs not being met.
From this beginning the ISN and the Hot Meals Ministry, which both continue today, were started with our area participants including First Christian, St. Andrew’s Episcopal, First United Methodist, First Presbyterian, St. Paul Lutheran, First Lutheran, Orangethorpe Christian, Orangethorpe United Methodist, the Congregational Church of Fullerton, St. Juliana Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, EV Free, Temple Beth Tikvah, and Brea Congregational.
In addition, FIES (Fullerton Interfaith Emergency Service), now called Pathways of Hope, was founded in 1975 by FIMA. Barbara Johnson served as founding executive director until she retired in 2005.
“We have never had so much interest in solving the homeless crisis than we do now with Judge Carter pushing for solutions,” said Johnson, “there is tremendous momentum now. We are hopeful.”
The idea of the ISN was that churches would agree to provide shelter for up to 12 homeless people at a time for 2-4 week periods, after which those people would rotate to another participating organization, and so forth, until they hopefully had secured employment or housing, explained Johnson.
There is a screening process that excludes drug or alcohol dependent individuals due to the lack of expertise to deal with those problems, but all employable job hunters are welcomed for up to six months each. During that time they are provided a safe place to live, showers, food, etc. while they secure a job and save adequate funds to move on to an apartment. About 10 north county religious institutions participate in the program at present as hosts or supporters.
“The Interfaith Shelter Network is one of our favorite mission projects because each person can participate in some way,” said Johnson, who also served as the coordinator for the program at the Congregational Church of Fullerton.
The program has been a successful (though limited) part of the homeless shelter system for 30 years. Currently, the ISN is being re-organized (and hopefully expanded) by local non-profit OC United, which is looking for more participating organizations.
Unfortunately, according to OC United director Jay Williams, when he’s asked new churches to participate in the program, the most common response has been, “No.”
“It’s been pretty frustrating for me,” said Williams, “They’re responding with ‘no’ because, for example, they’ve got a preschool on their campus, and I want to say, well, so do these other churches that are participating in the program, and they’re able to work because the guests come at dinner time and they leave at 7 in the morning. They’re not on campus during the day so there’s no overlap. There are no issues. So people are looking for easy, automatic outs.”
In an effort to dispel common fears and misconceptions about homelessness, Jason Phillips, pastor of Sojourners Church in Fullerton, sees his role as facilitating public education. Phillips served as the moderator for the three recent public meetings regarding the proposed Keystone on Commonwealth permanent supportive housing project for the homeless, to be potentially built by Pathways of Hope.
“The hope is to educate all our churches on who their neighbors are, what’s actually going on, and what could transform the person and their situation,” said Phillips, who has been hosting “homeless 101” presentations— to give folks more accurate data about homelessness, so they can respond more effectively.
Phillips is also the leader of a group of local evangelical churches called Fullerton ACT, whose goal is social engagement and advocacy around issues like homelessness and immigration.
Starting in May of this year, city leaders began meeting with representatives of the Fullerton Interfaith Ministerial Association (FIMA) and Fullerton ACT to discuss ways that religious institutions can participate in sheltering and assisting the homeless in a more coordinated and effective way.
“FIMA is a group of faith organizations who have been in Fullerton for a really long time and have been working on homelessness for decades,” explained Mandye Yates, the current president of FIMA and pastor at First Christian Church in Fullerton.
Pastor Yates explained that her church and FIMA have been doing a lot of education about what the best solutions to homelessness are. They have put their full support behind the Keystone on Commonwealth project, as this would provide a permanent solution, and they are continuing to provide weekly meals and other services along with the other participating organizations.
Meanwhile the fate of the Keystone project remains uncertain, as city leaders, non-profits, and faith groups grapple with how to provide shelter and services to homeless people in Fullerton.
To help meet the immediate need, every night, starting at 9pm, around 20 homeless people are allowed to gather at St. Philip Benizi Church in Fullerton to sleep on its grounds, because Father Dennis chooses not to send them away.
The stories of these people are varied. I decided to stop by the church this past Monday night, to speak with some of folks whom Father Dennis allows to sleep there.
The first two people I met were Tammy and her 24 year-old son, who have been homeless since December 2017.
“We couldn’t afford the rent anymore, so we lost our apartment. We stayed with my aunt for a little while, and then we stayed at the Armory until it closed in July,” explained Tammy, “Now we’re staying here until either we get an apartment, we go to the Kraemer shelter, or something happens.”
Tammy has a brain tumor that prevents her from working, and her son has had a host of health problems— including cancer, heart issues, and a slipped disc in his back.
Tammy’s husband is out of work and waiting for social security because he turns 63 in December. But, he has to get to Norwalk to get his birth certificate in order to get his benefits, and doesn’t have a car. This hi-lights another issue homeless people face, which is that it’s hard to navigate the system without transportation.
CityNet, contracted by the City of Fullerton to manage homeless services, has begun doing some outreach and case management in Fullerton–to help people secure benefits they are eligible for. (CityNet’s recently completed count of the homeless individuals in Fullerton is expected to be released soon.)
With the high area rents it can be hard to make ends meet even with money coming in from benefits or a low-paying job.
According to the Federal Social Security Administration, the monthly maximum amounts of SSI benefits in 2018 for those eligible are $750 for an individual and $1,125 for an individual with a spouse. (Source: http://www.ssa.gov
The average rent for a studio apartment in Fullerton is $1,359; one-bed apartments go for $1,612; 2-bed $1,994; and 3-bed rents are $2,815, according to www.rentcafe.com.
Tammy and her son with Father Dennis.
Tammy and her son talked about how they have been harassed and belittled by residents of the surrounding neighborhood—people making rude/cruel comments about them, both in person and online on the Little Chapman/Adlena Park Facebook group.
Tammy said that her husband was sitting on a bench at Pacific Drive Park, when a little kid pointed at him and said, “Mommy, is that one of the monsters?” — suggesting that the mother had told her child that homeless people are monsters.
“They can judge all they want, but they don’t know your situation,” said Tammy, “Like he’s had cancer, and he’s had heart problems, and he had a job but blew out the disc in his back. And he’s only 24.”
More than one of the homeless people I spoke with said that they had also been harassed by the local police, and had their possessions taken from them.
“The cops, they harass us so much,” said a man named Joe, “They take our stuff, they leave us with nothing, and they expect us to be quiet. They take everything we have…a lot of people in this community don’t see that. They don’t see how we get harassed by the law.”
According to Fullerton Police Dept PIO Sgt. Jon Radus, “Being homeless is not illegal. Officers only issue a citation to a homeless person for sleeping in a public park after closing hours or on private property. If they are committing a crime, such as drug possession, and are arrested we take their property and book it into the city property storage area. Any perishable items are discarded. Abandoned items found in a public area are discarded. Otherwise we do not take or discard personal property.”
And so, for the time being, at least 20 homeless people take refuge at St. Philip Benizi Church, where they can at least get a decent night’s sleep and are relatively safe from the dangers of living on the street and harassment by neighbors and the police.
Father Dennis says he’s been talking with an organization called The Illumination Foundation to see if he can organize a “safe parking” program, to allow homeless people to sleep in their cars in the church’s parking lot. However, he has also encountered city and neighbor resistance to this idea (even from some of his own parishioners).
Regardless of their denomination or tradition, everyone from the faith community I spoke with for this article agreed that providing for the needy is, or ought to be, a central part of their faith.
“I suppose one of the single most distressing things, to me, is how many people seem to have completely detached Christianity from helping the needy,” said Father Dennis, noting some of the negative comments about homeless people on Nextdoor.com, and comments at public forums.
“This is our faith,” he said, citing Jesus’ commandment to help the poor.