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Homeless outreach creates ‘a lot of renewed passion’ in Southern California church


St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Lomita is tackling ‘humongous’ homeless issue as part of its Matthew 25 commitment

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

About a dozen of the nearly 100 members of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Lomita, Calif., are involved in a pair of outreach programs to people nearby who are experiencing homelessness. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Lomita, Calif., is located near a substantial encampment of people experiencing homelessness.

In and around the community in southern Los Angeles County, “the homeless issue out here is humongous,” says Marney Wilde, an 82-year-old St. Mark’s member who is part of one of two St. Mark’s teams providing services to the church’s neighbors. “It’s not just the typical homeless. The rents here are incredibly expensive. Most people are two or three paychecks away from being on the streets. That helps explain the heavy homeless population we are seeing.”

The Los Angeles Almanac reports that about 44,000 people are on the streets during any given night in Los Angeles County. That’s as many people as live in Brea, Calif., about an hour east of Lomita. Sixteen percent of the county’s homeless population live in the southern portion of the county. Twenty-five percent of the county’s homeless have a serious mental illness, and 15 percent have a substance abuse disorder. About one-third of the county’s homeless are African Americans, much higher than African Americans’ 8 percent share of the county’s population.

The session of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, which has nearly 100 members, voted recently to accept the Matthew 25 invitation. While eradicating systemic poverty is the church’s main focus, members are finding “renewed congregational vitality” by “taking on a role in this challenging citywide issue of increasing numbers of homeless individuals,” the church wrote on its Matthew 25 invitation acceptance form.

A few St. Mark’s members working to reduce homelessness have found their niche working alongside case managers who are trying to qualify people for public housing. Church volunteers also help families avoid falling back into homelessness once they’ve obtained housing, Wilde explained.

A half-dozen or so St. Mark’s members work with ImagineLA, which works to end homelessness by guiding teams of volunteer mentors who are paired with vulnerable families.

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church pairs a mentor with each family member over 5 who is experiencing homelessness. (Contributed photo)

“Once they have housing, (families) get a mentor for everyone over the age of 5,” Wilde explained. Currently St. Mark’s members are mentoring two families, both headed by single mothers. Mentor relationships last for around 18 months.

“The goal is to help them find the resources they can use on their own,” she said. Parents typically need help with budgeting, meal-planning and stretching their money. Children need help with their schoolwork — and often with making new friends, since they frequently transfer from school to school.

Another St. Mark’s outreach is in partnership with case managers, who work for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the joint powers authority of the City and County of Los Angeles. Church members help case managers gather documents and provide bus tickets so clients can make the appointments they’ve scheduled.

“In the process, we listen a lot to find out exactly what it is that individual needs,” Wilde said. “We aren’t interested in coming in and telling people how to live. They are anxious to find housing and are extremely cooperative.”

Another important task for church members is to help people keep up with their belongings.

“A cleaning sweep can mean they come back to find everything gone, including their documentation,” Wilde said. “It’s also important to help them keep their cell phones charged. We are forming relationships with individuals are we’re being as helpful as we can. They know there are no strings attached.”

The outreach by members of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church “has renewed our congregation’s sense of mission,” Pastor Billy Song said. (Contributed photo)

“We haven’t been at it for long,” she said, “but already we’ve seen six people get into housing. We’re continuing our mentoring, which makes them more acceptable to a landlord. It’s the little things, but individuals understand where the help is coming from. It raises their self-esteem to know people care.”

St. Mark’s is in it for the long haul. Members helped organize a job skills education program at the encampment with a focus on welding. With the Port of Long Beach just 20 minutes from Lomita, “they can get hired immediately,” Wilde said.

The outreach “has renewed our congregation’s sense of mission,” said St. Mark’s pastor, the Rev. Billy Song. “In prior years, what might have been limited to acts of compassion and charity, in the forms of food, clothing and basic necessities, has also now taken on a role of advocacy and empowerment.”

All that work has not gone unnoticed by other worshipers at St. Mark’s, Song said.

“We’ve moved beyond just trying to get them to their next meal, but helping them find homes, as well as assisting with job skills,” he said. “That has generated a lot of renewed passion in our church — not to mention a deep sense of purpose and joy too!”

“The church’s prayers and support have been hugely important,” Wilde said. “We truly see these individuals as God’s family. At this time they are in need of our help.”

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