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Responding to Homelessness

Vanguard University sponsors summit to seek solutions.

Directly behind Angel Stadium and visible from the freeway, a makeshift camp of hundreds of homeless people in Orange County, California, attracted the attention of government officials.

When U.S. District Judge David O. Carter ruled that cities could not enforce anti-camping laws unless they provided some means of shelter for those without housing, county and city officials were forced to find solutions for those in need.

The situation became a catalyst that sparked the creation of a task force on homelessness in the city of Costa Mesa, one of Orange County’s 36 cities.

According to Ian F. Stevenson, the task force initiated conversations and information among congregations, nonprofits, and city leaders. Increased communication, street outreach, and services resulted. Stevenson is the director of Trellis, a nonprofit agency created to support a collective approach to resolving urban challenges, including homelessness.

“Without the collaboration, the amount of traction is limited,” says Stevenson, 58.

According to Stevenson, before the city stepped in and promoted partnership, various churches merely took a patchwork approach by dropping off supplies and distributing sandwiches. “It created more problems for the city than solutions,” he says.

The task force formation came as a result of Costa Mesa leaders’ increasing frustration. The committee became known as The Network for Homeless Solutions and met weekly for nine months. Goals and objectives formulated included:

— Instituting proactive problem resolutions regarding high crime/vice motels that cater to the transient population and enforcement of local codes and ordinances at problem recovery homes.
— Centralizing homeless service coordination.
— Integrating law enforcement, mental health, and legal strategies in a coordinated approach to homelessness.

“Prior to this, people were not moving off the streets,” Stevenson says. “Since we started this, 600 people have ended their homelessness.”

This collaborative approach was punctuated at a February Summit on Homelessness and Mental Health at the Jesse Miranda Center for Hispanic Leadership at Vanguard University. The school is located in Costa Mesa.

“Jesse Miranda often made the statement that he wanted to serve the three Cs: the campus, the church, and the community,” says Norlan J. Hernández, director of the Miranda Center. The summit accomplished all three, according to Hernandez.

“We wanted to bring further awareness of the needs of the homeless community and their mental health needs,” says Hernández, 32. “And we wanted to create a space where collaboration and networking could happen. Through the resources presented, leaders — especially faith leaders — could see what is available.”

Organizations represented at the summit included counseling centers and churches.

“We convened the players and created a platform to present the organizations that are doing the work with the purpose of facilitating networking opportunities,” says Hernández.
Patricia P. Burton, adjunct psychology professor at Vanguard University, spoke at the summit about the mental health of the homeless population.

“The most common diagnoses we’re seeing within the homeless population include schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, and substance abuse,” says Burton, 44.

Burton sees the symptoms of the homeless getting worse because they often don’t receive the treatment and medications they need.

“The homeless need motivation to seek help and follow through with resources, but there is often impairment in the cognitive abilities when they are experiencing severe mental health symptoms,” Burton says. “The key is engagement.”

Stevenson believes Christians must play a vital role in offering solutions.

“The real value the Church brings into this is the relational contacts, because no homeless person takes their next step without some kind of relationship that helps them do that,” he says.

Amy Lynn Smith

Amy Lynn Smith lives in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, with her pastor husband, W. Kevin Smith and the two youngest of their six children. She has served in various aspects of ministry with the Assemblies of God for 27 years, including worship leader, deacon, and youth pastor. She is currently office manager at Radcliff First Assembly.