Serving those who have ‘nowhere else to go, nobody else to turn to’


At a homeless encampment in Southern California, a Matthew 25 church works to end poverty

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

More than 60,000 people in Los Angeles County  are experiencing homelessness. About two-thirds live on the streets or at an encampment like this one. (Photo by Mike Fitzer/Film 180)

LOUISVILLE — According to the Rev. Billy Song of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Lomita, California, Los Angeles County has about 60,000 people experiencing homelessness.  About two-thirds are living on the streets or in tents.

“We’ve seen it right here with one of our own members,” Song said.

When St. Mark’s stopped seeing John Hironymous, the church discovered he was living in his car, which he eventually lost and ended up on the streets.

When Nancy Salinger found out that St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church member John Hironymous was living in a homeless encampment, she started bringing him food and water. Soon church members launched a homeless encampment ministry and said yes to the Matthew 25 invitation. (Photo by Mike Fitzer/Film 180)

“I found him at the homeless camp,” about 10 minutes from the church, and started bringing him food, said Nancy Salinger, a member of St. Mark’s Homeless Encampment Ministry.

Salinger invited a few of her friends at St. Mark’s to join her for weekly visits to the encampment. One of those friends is Joan Sundberg, who remembers the compassion she felt for the people they met there.

“It was a real eye-opener to see how people lived,” she said.

Julie Hast, a ruling elder at St. Mark’s, said she felt overwhelmed at first. Even with the caring they carried into the ministry, team members wondered what they could do to begin solving such a big problem.

But as the group of five St. Mark’s women, which also included Becky Adams and Marney Wilde, developed relationships with people at the encampment, they began getting involved in their lives. They started helping the people living there to keep their mental health and housing appointments.

Adams worked closely with one of the encampment residents, Heidi Strobel, helping her to apply for rent assistance. That help paid off: Strobel recently moved into a studio apartment in Los Angeles about 10 miles from the encampment.  Most of the $1,200 per month rent for her studio apartment is paid through a government subsidy housing program.

“I’m very grateful for Becky,” Strobel said. “If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be housed.”

Now St. Mark’s women are partnering with a social services agency, Harbor Interfaith Services, to form a support group for Strobel and others like her living nearby.

Together they want to make sure that the women who were formerly experiencing homelessness and are living away from close friends and family won’t feel alone or isolated. This too is part of the work of alleviating poverty.

“How do you do that?” Adams asked. “By teaching people skills like budgeting, setting goals and thinking about education.”

The St. Mark’s women are working at the encampment with Shawna Castle, helping her to find housing. After living with a verbally abusive boyfriend for five years, Castle tried to get a place of her own. Even though she was earning $19 an hour, she could not find housing she could afford.

There wasn’t a room to rent, not a garage, not the trunk of a car, or the square of a driveway that I could afford,” she said. “This is where we have come because we had nowhere else to go, because we had nobody else to turn to.”

Castle said that the pain is so great for those experiencing homelessness that they often don’t know how to deal with it — except to try to numb it for a little while so they don’t have to think about what’s causing it.

“Even if it’s just five minutes of peace without the pain,” she said.

Hearing Castle’s cries for help made Sundberg think about Jesus’s Parable of the Good Samaritan and how people saw a person hurting and walked away — and how she used to be that way.

For a long time, Sundberg said she would see the camps and the people and would walk to the other side of the street because she didn’t want to be involved.

But now she is part of why St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church is one of what is now more than 350 PC(USA) Matthew 25 congregations. Along with 31 mid councils, all, including St. Mark’s, are working on at least one of these three priorities — building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty.  Because everyone at the encampment is concerned with issues of food, drink, shelter and health, Wilde calls the St. Mark’s homeless encampment ministry “a Matthew 25 effort all by itself.”

Both the Rev. Billy Song and members of the St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church Homeless Encampment Ministry say accepting the Matthew 25 invitation has energized the congregation in amazing ways. (Photo by Mike Fitzer/Film 180)

Both Song, the St. Mark’s pastor, and each of the women say the Matthew 25 invitation has energized the congregation in amazing ways. They’ve been able to let the people experiencing homelessness know that they have a relationship with something that is bigger and broader than their current housing situation.

They now know it’s not just about five St. Mark’s women engaged in a homeless encampment ministry. Across the country there are people, Hast said, who are “committed to being part of eradicating poverty, addressing racism and to the revitalization of the church.”

“Can it happen? I think If enough people care,” she said. “It’d be a very challenging task, but we’ve got someone up there on our side.  How could it not?”

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