In early 2017, Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves and the Diocese of Real Episcopal staff visited First United Methodist Church in downtown Salinas to experience its expansive ministries for the city’s homeless. They toured the church’s fellowship hall, food pantry, clothing rooms, computer lab, art room, and finally reached the kitchen to don gloves and assist with serving lunch.
Upon entering the kitchen, they found another church team already hard at work: members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salinas were preparing to plate the dinners they’d cooked for lunch. The team volunteers at First Methodist every Tuesday; on Thursdays, Church of the Good Shepherd in Salinas handles lunch duties. From November to April, St. George’s Episcopal Church brings weekly dinners to the city’s warming shelter at a former credit union building less than a mile away from First Methodist.
Salinas is by no means the largest example of California’s growing homeless crisis, but it’s typical of the struggles faced by cities across the diocese from San Luis Obispo to Santa Cruz to San Jose and Silicon Valley. While homeless numbers dropped nationwide between 2015 and 2016, California cities saw an uptick of three percent, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual snapshot assessment.
As cities struggle to find longer-term solutions – permanent housing, clinical outreach on the streets, case management and supportive services – Episcopal congregations have stepped up in their communities to help, either individually or in partnership with other churches. The following stories are a snapshot of homeless ministries across El Camino Real, spanning the three deaneries that comprise our diocese.
Santa Clara Valley Deanery
Home rentals are so high in Mountain View that people are finding it difficult to afford rent, so instead they live in their vehicles. But due to local county and police restrictions, they cannot park and sleep in their vehicles for long periods in a safe environment. St Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Mountain View and other faith-based organizations are working together to provide safe and stable parking areas for the city’s homeless who live in vehicles. It’s estimated that more than 100 vehicles in the area are used as homes, where these citizens — an estimated 55% of whom are working — live in conditions that lack water, hygiene, electricity, and most of all, dignity.
In 2016, St. Francis Episcopal Church of Willow Glen teamed with several Methodist, Catholic and other churches to organize and initiate a four-month rotating shelter pilot project, the Winter Faith Collaborative. Their work led to a year-round shelter called “Village House: An Interfaith Shelter of Hope,” now supported by several Episcopal churches in the deanery. The rotating shelter includes overnight accommodations and daytime warming centers for 15 pre-screened, medically fragile women. St. Francis, Good Samaritan of San Jose, and The Episcopal Church in Almaden have each hosted shelters.
Village House provides vulnerable women with a caring, loving environment. For some, it’s the first 24-hour “safe space” they’ve had in years. The goal is to help them stabilize their lives and support them to move beyond homelessness – while also offering volunteer service opportunities to parishioners and community members. At St. Francis, about 90 parishioners participated alongside dozens more volunteers from the community and other parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Saratoga and St. Jude’s Episcopal Church in Cupertino.
When the warming shelter was hosted at The Episcopal Church in Almaden, a total of 237 volunteers helped at the ECA warming center, 39 of whom were ECA members. Movies, books, puzzles, coloring books and computers were provided for guests. In addition, volunteers provided activities such as creating flower arrangements, making bread, and coloring Lenten posters. Donated gift certificates for clothing and bus passes were given to guests, who even received mugs and glasses displaying their names. Many volunteers come away feeling blessed and inspired by the shelter guests. The life-changing impact of Village House is movingly illustrated by the written comments of guests: “Thank you for teaching me what God meant when he said ‘Love one another.’” “Thank you for your warm hearts and for giving us hope!”
All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Palo Alto helped move an impossible dream to community miracle when the Opportunity Center opened in Palo Alto in 2006. Through its affiliation with Peninsula Interfaith Action (PIA), a faith-based community organizing group, the church identified the plight of local homeless individuals as a community issue. All Saints’ leaders met with city council members, various faith leaders, Stanford University leaders, and homeless activists, all of whom eventually formed a permanent supportive housing and drop-in center with a full range of services for homeless men, women and families. Today it’s the Opportunity Center — a day center for local homeless families and individuals plus 88 units of low income housing above.
The center is overseen by the nonprofit Community Working Group, a volunteer-driven organization based in Palo Alto. The Opportunity Center is one of three affordable housing communities it developed to help prevent homelessness; the others are 801 Alma Family Housing and Alma Garden. About 300 people live in these properties; one in three is a child.
Trinity Cathedral San Jose’s homeless feeding program began in April 2001; since that time, a group of 10-15 volunteers have gathered at the Trinity kitchen on the second and third Saturdays of each month to prepare and serve a lunch to approximately 40 clients of the Julian Street Inn and Cecil B. White Center – two facilities run by InnVision/Shelter Network. Since 2010, Trinity has also provided lunch to the 20 or more families in temporary housing at the San Jose Family Shelter. Volunteers include youngsters, teens, and adults, plus “friends of the parish” who also shop, cook and serve; the latter includes co-workers, people who find the program online, Girl Scouts, and school groups.
Thirty years ago, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Los Gatos began an outreach program for homeless and barely housed members of the Los Gatos community. The program has evolved from a weekly handout of groceries to its present status: a weekly hot meal, a bag of groceries, access to clothes, assistance with transportation, communications, veterans’ counseling, and more. The volunteer staff includes both men and women from various faith communities. Each client receives a weekly bag of food, plus tents, sleeping bags, and tarps as needed.
Under the guidance of Jo Greiner, Outreach Director of the program since 1996, the St. Luke’s Pantry program raises all operational funds and is supported in many ways by the parish. It thrives with the volunteer work of dozens of local volunteers, and benefits from individuals in the community, from anonymous financial helpers, and a coterie of client helpers.
For years St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Scotts Valley has opened their facility and offered dinner every Saturday night for about 20 participants in the Faith Community Shelter, operated by the Association of Faith Communities of Santa Cruz County, of which St. Philip’s is a member. These participants share dinner, stay overnight at the church, and then have breakfast on Sunday morning. Some remain for the Sunday service and all help clean up before leaving for the day. Other churches in the area are responsible for providing food and shelter throughout the week.
St Philips also partners with Wings Homeless Advocacy, an all-volunteer organization committed to living out our values of compassion, dignity and respect for all people by uniting the community to be volunteer advocates for those moving out of homelessness and onto a path of healing—working together to end chronic homelessness in Santa Cruz County. Working with professional case managers, Wings connects caring advocates with a homeless participant to help them obtain resources needed to become housed and self-sufficient.
St. John’s in Aptos has been actively involved in many homeless support services. The church raised funds to help build the Rebele Family Shelter, part of the Homeless Services Center (HSC), on the corner of River and Coral Streets in Santa Cruz. (The facility was named for St. John’s members Rowland and Pat Rebele.) Upon completion of the facility, the parish furnished two family apartments. The shelter accommodates 28 families with children for a maximum stay of six months, providing counseling and career exploration, and helping people find jobs and permanent housing.
Inspired by Rowland (known as “Reb”), St. John’s members hold the Chairperson position at both the Homeless Service Center of Santa Cruz and the Association of Faith Communities (AFC). Reb has been a funder and organizer for much of the structure of the Homeless Service Center and the AFC attending to needs of those without homes in Santa Cruz. St. John’s members have prepared marvelous meals, fellowship and Compline at St. John’s on Tuesdays as part of the AFC’s Faith Shelter.
Calvary Episcopal Church in Santa Cruz supports several homeless services. Calvary is a founding member of the Association of Faith Communities of Santa Cruz County, which operates the Faith Community Shelter, the Santa Cruz County Winter Emergency Shelter, and more. The church also hosts the Faith Community Shelter, housing up to 20 people one night every other week.
Every Monday evening, its Coffee House provides a warm meal for about 75 people. More than that, the Coffee House also offers a sustaining, helpful opportunity for those gathered to engage in music, prayer, and Bible study. Additionally, Calvary’s food pantry is now in its 44th year of providing fresh produce and nonperishable foodstuffs at no charge to 40-50 clients twice a month.
Calvary is one of the designated host sites for the Santa Cruz Warming Center, an emergency service that provides shelter on the coldest and/or rainiest nights. The church has also authorized Loads of Love (LOLO) to park their mobile laundry van in the church parking lot one morning a week. A Calvary member serves on the Board of the Homeless Garden Project, an employment training program in Santa Cruz serving individuals who are currently or formerly homeless and experiencing difficulty finding employment. The project supports an organic farm and retail shop and provides training in organic farming and retail sales.
Three nights a month, St. John’s Chapel in Monterey provides shelter to homeless women through the I-Help program, a joint effort among Monterey area churches. The individuals stay Wednesday through Friday nights, giving them some sense of continuity. The church also works with One Starfish, a safe parking and support services program for homeless women in Monterey, to provide overnight parking to working homeless women and their families. The church allows up to six cars to park at their lot seven nights a week from 7am to 7:30 am, providing a stable place to live while they search for permanent housing.
For many years Church of the Good Shepherd, Salinas has focused much of its outreach on feeding homeless persons in Salinas in concert with other organizations. Offerings are made every Sunday, placed in the Monterey County Food Bank barrel located in the sanctuary, translating to an annual total of 5,000 lbs. of donated food.
As noted at the top of this story, parishioners prepare and serve lunch every other Thursday to needy people at First United Methodist Church in Salinas. Typically 100-150 people are served by the lunches, which are also prepared and served by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salinas every other Tuesday. Clothing, jackets, umbrellas are collected and distributed in coordination with They Are One-Local and First United Methodist. “Blessing Bags” are assembled by both Sunday School kids and congregation members – filled with items such as toothbrushes, toiletries, water bottles, lip balm, tissues, and more – and given to people living on the streets.
Good Shepherd is a member of the Interfaith Outreach of Carmel, supporting its Joining Hands Benefit Shop which raises funds for grants to Monterey organizations providing homeless services. Its work with the Salvation Army Monterey Peninsula Corps includes providing Christmas gifts for distribution to homeless children plus backpacks filled with school supplies.
For many years, St. George’s Episcopal Church in Salinas has operated a weekly Food Pantry that is open to all Salinas residents on Friday mornings from 10:30 to noon. Up to 50 families a month are given food thanks to the pantry. During the cold months of November through April, St. George’s volunteers prepare and deliver a meal every month to local homeless at the Salinas Warming Shelter. In December the church also gives out gift bags filled with scarves and hats made by parishioners, plus socks, hygiene necessities, and (of course) chocolate.
San Luis Obispo Deanery
In 2017, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in San Luis Obispo celebrated 150 years of social action serving the community. The church hosted a community event titled “San Luis Obispo’s Response to the Homeless Dilemma: 1968 to 2017 and Beyond.” The gathering featured presentations from leaders of agencies that help the homeless. Following the speakers, a warm meal was shared with guests who were hosted at the church in February. St. Stephen’s serves as an overflow homeless shelter for CAPSLO, the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo. St. Stephen’s also provides a complete sit-down breakfast on Christmas morning for all who attend. As in past years, they collected clothing and other needed items for local homeless.
St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church in Los Osos has been active in developing and partnering with local organizations and churches to provide and serve a hot meal every other Monday, along with offering friendship from volunteers and information about available community services. The Los Osos community dinners are based on a successful program in Morro Bay of serving weekly dinners for many years through community volunteers.
The St. Benedict’s Homeless Outreach team and church members kicked off the first community dinner serving pasta on May 1. The St. Benedict’s team, through the Los Osos Cares subcommittee of the Los Osos Community Coalition and other non-profits, has initially committed to providing a dinner once every two months. The hope is to ultimately expand the program to a weekly dinner.
The church – which has a few homeless members — also provides lunch at Peoples’ Kitchen in San Luis Obispo every two months and provides breakfast foods and other items for the Day Shelter in SLO. Its thrift store is a welcoming place for those living on the edge and often provides free clothing and more, while fielding calls for financial help.
Members of St Luke’s Episcopal Church Atascadero are involved with the local Loaves and Fishes program, and also work with ECHO, the local homeless shelter. The Rev. Susan Arnold, deacon at St. Barnabas, Arroyo Grande, regularly volunteers at a local warming shelter along with other members. This includes providing hygiene kits to be given to homeless by outreach workers.
For more than 20 years the People’s Kitchen in San Luis Obispo has provided a noon meal to hungry residents. More than 30,000 meals are served each year thanks to over 40 serving organizations that include three churches from the San Luis Obispo Deanery: St. Stephen’s, St. Benedict’s and St. Peter By the Sea in Morro Bay. St. Peter’s also supports the Salvation Army, Community Foundation of Estero Bay, the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, and others.
Finally, St. James Paso Robles annually delivers a five-figure check to the Food Bank Coalition of SLO County, thanks to its annual “Music for the Soul” fundraisers. The donation will help Food Bank SLO continue its mission to provide nutritious food to residents who face hunger.
These stories are a sampling of the community outreach ministries taking place across The Diocese of El Camino Real. To learn more about these programs, or to submit news of your own church’s outreach, email Elrond Lawrence, communications director, at email@example.com.