A Breakfast Ministry
By Karen Olds
Marlene Botts, 53, and her daughter, Debbie Fields, 22, lost their apartment in November, 1990, when they couldn’t afford to pay rent, even though Botts had a job as a clerk with a local bank. They spent three months living out of their car and in an emergency shelter.
Simon Ugarte, 40, a solar architect, taught at three universities in his native Peru before coming to the United States. He came because he was told there were more opportunities in his field. Since he spoke no English, however, he had trouble acquiring a decent job, and he eventually lost his studio apartment when he could not earn enough to make ends meet.
In the Los Angeles area, in response to the extreme needs of the growing number of homeless people, several churches joined hands and formed the Valley Interfaith Shelter Network, an organization that would provide short-term assistance to the working homeless. One of the churches involved was St. Innocent’s Orthodox Church. The test period was from January 7th to March 4th, 1991, in which each parish would for 2 weeks provide for the immediate needs of a small number of homeless people.
For this first attempt at trying the program, the San Femando Valley congregations decided to assist people whom their combined efforts might most help succeed. They targeted homeless people who were seriously looking for employment or who needed support as they began working at recently-obtained jobs.
Their effort included providing shelter and food, as well as offering the services of volunteer counselors who met with the homeless twice a week in an effort to help them find permanent homes and jobs. The homeless “guests” were given monthly bus passes so they could look for work and travel to their jobs. In short, the program tried to cover every expense so that for two months they could save every penny they earned.
ST. INNOCENTS BECOMES A SUPPORT UNIT
Fr. Gregory Safchuk initiated the effort to involve the St. Innocent Parish as a support congregation in this worthwhile program. Specifically, St. Innocent’s was to provide and serve breakfast each day for II homeless men and women for the two weeks that they lived two blocks away at Temple Judea, their hosts.
When Karen Olds presented the program to her fellow parishioners, she encouraged each person to consider the support they could best provide in terms of either volunteering time to serve a meal, providing or making some of the fresh foods, or making donations to cover the costs of obtaining some of the food in bulk quantities. The enthusiastic response was gratifying.
Breakfast service began at 6:30 AM each day. Some volunteers worked the morning shift; other volunteers partially set up the breakfast buffet the evening before, so only a few items needed to be retrieved from the refrigerator each morning.
The menu was dictated by the fact that the guests needed to be out the door fairly quickly so that they could begin “pounding the pavement.” Meals, therefore, included food and drinks that could be made instantly with hot water or heated quickly in a toaster oven.
Clean-up had to be easy because the Temple facilities also served a day school. Paper supplies and plastic utensils were simply tossed out. Appropriate items were returned to the refrigerator; other leftover items were set aside for use the next day. On weekends, scrambled eggs and hashed brown potatoes were added to the buffet. On Sunday mornings, it was an extremely easy matter to serve breakfast since there was ample time before attending Divine Liturgy at St. Innocent’s Church.
RESULTS OF THE PROGRAM
When the program started, neither the homeless nor the volunteers were quite sure what to expect. To the volunteers, the homeless were an abstraction, people pictured in the news or whom they sometimes encountered on the street, sometimes dirty and perhaps even frightening. Who knows what the homeless themselves expected of the volunteers?
Both the homeless participants and the volunteers were pleasantly surprised. The homeless were stunned by the personal attention they received, after having been on the streets and suffering indignity, after meeting cold and indifferent stares, and after having, by necessity, to keep up their guard. The volunteers felt good about helping people on a personal level, and the “unknown” homeless became real people with names and faces and personalities and emotions. Indeed, the meals became enjoyable affairs as the volunteers mingled and shared meals and conversation-and their hearts-with the homeless.
What happened to Marlene and Debbie and Simon?
After living three months out of the car and in the emergency shelter, someone directed Marlene and Debbie to the Valley Interfaith Shelter Network. After receiving help from the Network, they were once again able to move into their own apartment. As for Simon, he also found a new place to live, and as his English improved, he became optimistic that better jobs would come his way. As Marlene Botts said, “All we needed was a little bit of help to get back on our feet, and they gave it to us.”
It was most encouraging for the congregations involved in the Network to learn that 90% of the homeless people who completed the program did not return to the street. The congregations felt energized by their participation, and each planned to participate
What happened to the St. Innocent Parish?
The parish undertook the same project for the second year in February, 1992. This time there were 20 homeless participants in the group, the number of helpers from the parish also grew, to more than a dozen. The success rate of those who completed the program and achieved economic stability was again a very encouraging 90%.
In addition to the positive feelings the parish experienced, there was more of a realization this year, according to Fr. Safchuk, of the magnitude of the problems which the homeless face. Feeling overwhelmed at times by the complexities of the situation, the Network helpers had to rely more heavily on their faith, knowing that they were doing the Lord’s work regardless of the outcome.
The experience of both years’ work with the homeless has invigorated the parish, and it has inspired the parishioners to want to engage in even more “hands on” involvement in charitable work. A “Habitat for Humanity’ project in their area may be their next endeavor.