San Clemente homeless assistance program looking at how to house city’s homeless
By Jim Shilander
Some of the leaders of San Clemente-based homeless outreach program iHOPE (Interfaith Homeless Outreach Project for Empowerment) know first hand what a helping hand can mean.
Executive director Cathleen Murphy said that about a decade ago, she managed to escape an abusive marriage, that had produced nine children after 17 years.
“One day you wake up and you realize it’s very bad and you have to get out,” Murphy said.
Murphy was living in Costa Mesa and earning a good living when she received a letter that the home she was renting was going to be sold later that year and that she and her family would have to leave.
“I thought it’d be OK, that I’d just work more hours,” Murphy said. However, as she searched, she discovered that she’d been paying almost $1,000 less than the market value. “The owners were in Virginia, and I just don’t think they’d raised the rent.”
Murphy said she was unable to find any place to live. Weeks before she and her children would be evicted, she went into the office she’d been working at part-time.
“I walked into work and was told they didn’t need me anymore,” Murphy said. Despite having a year left on a three-year contract, the company told her they had no more work. After that, she began calling various shelters in her area, only to discover that there was something to keep her out of the shelter, either her number of children, the ages of her sons or something else.
At that point she decided to “ride it out” for what she thought would be a couple of months. She sent her children to live with various family and friends and put much of her things into storage.
“I figured it would turn around pretty quickly,” Murphy said. After a couple of weeks, however, she realized things were much more difficult than she’d expected. “I’m in my van, sleeping, thinking it was a lot harder than I thought it would be.”
Murphy found it hard to land work, and much of her identifying information, like her Social Security card, was in storage. “I didn’t know how to become ‘un-homeless,’” she said.
She finally ended up at a church, about two blocks from where she used to live. The church cleared out an unused youth room and she and several other women were allowed to stay there. She stayed there for more than a year.
“It took me two years, three months and three shelters to get into low income housing,” she said. The experience made her want to help people who’d gotten into similar situations, she said.
“It seemed like I needed to do something to change the system.”
Volunteer Gary Snyder had a similar story. After spending years working as a tow-truck driver for Orange County, Snyder said his knees had given out and needed to be replaced, forcing him to go on disability.
“My landlord didn’t want to wait until it came through,” Snyder said. He spent six months living in campgrounds and received help from iHope. Now in his own place, Snyder still keeps up volunteering. “I didn’t think I’d do my life over again. But once my knees went out and I couldn’t work anymore, I didn’t think I’d be homeless, either.”
Snyder monitors the organization’s weekly portable shower visit to Dana Point and ensures that the homeless who stop for a shower receive clean T-shirts, underwear and socks, as well as toiletries. He also makes sure the people who stop by only take what they’re allowed.
“Some of them don’t like me, some of them do,” he said. “They know they can only get something one time, but if they don’t show up, they don’t get anything.”
Typically, between eight to 18 people show up on a weekly basis, though sometimes the number rises well into the 20s, Snyder said.
Board member Max Wasinger noted that for most of the iHope clients who come to the showers, it is about feeling like a regular person for some time.
“This is all about giving our fellow human beings some dignity,” Wasinger said. “It makes a huge difference. These are good people, some of them are working poor, some of them live in the cars, some of them live under the overpass.”
Wasinger said the board’s ultimate goal is to get a local shelter in place again. If one could be put in place, iHope would be happy to run the facility, he said.
The largest church shelter in the area, Capo Beach Church (formerly Capo Beach Calvary), closed its shelter in 2011 after the city of Dana Point decided to enforce the 10-bed restriction in the city’s zoning code. The organization has made an appeal to Dana Point officials to lift the restriction and planned to speak at the Dana Point City Council meeting this week.
“We have the human resources,” Wasinger said. “We just don’t have the capital.”
The death in January of a homeless man who was sleeping outside near Trestles has spurred a renewed call for some sort of shelter for the homeless in the area.
Scott “Scooch” Miller was found dead in January after sleeping in the bushes at San Onofre State Park. Murphy said Miller had been a client of iHope. Miller’s death came during a cold snap when temperatures were often in the 20s at night.
Denise Obrero of the city’s housing department is serving on the committee that is looking into how the city can comply with regulations from the state that require communities to designate at least one area where homeless shelters would be allowed. The state requires that communities look at both emergency and annual needs and that they designate at least one site capable of sheltering the homeless in an emergency. Cities can adopt an agreement with other municipalities to share shelters as well. Obrero said the process of identifying possible areas of the city for the shelter is underway as part of the city’s consideration of its housing element. Obrero indicated a decision could be made within six months. City Council member Tim Brown said that members of the body had also met individually with iHope to discuss the issue.
Murphy noted that iHope has served more than 500 clients who were literally homeless since opening its office on West Canada in January 2012, as well as more than 200 who were about to lose housing, “unstably” housed or “at-risk.” Contrary to what some might think, Murphy said, the majority of those seeking help are locals, rather than transients from outside the area.
“We send them home as often as possible,” Murphy said of the transients who do come in. The largest shelter in the area, she noted, the Laguna Beach Alternative Sleeping Location, succeeds at keeping most transients away by giving preference to homeless people with ties to Laguna Beach first. The 50-bed facility allocates 40 of those beds for Laguna residents, she noted. If any shelter were to be put in San Clemente, she said, the organization would try to put a similar policy in place.
For locals, the organization provides not only assistance, but also a place to get mail.
“We’ve also helped people get an ID, which helps them get a job,” Murphy said. At one point the organization even gave out pre-paid cell phones to five men. Murphy said all five had jobs within two weeks, even though some of those jobs were temporary. They also assist people in appealing disability claims.
The organization also will help put up vulnerable families, such as those with children, in a hotel for a week, which it has grant funding for. After that point, the cost becomes too much, Murphy said, at which point the group partners with area churches to defray the costs.
“The people who are most vulnerable are the ones who we put the most effort toward,” Murphy explained.
The organization will be holding a fundraiser Monday, April 1, at Bella Collina Towne & Golf Club. All the proceeds from the iHope Golf Classic will support the organization’s outreach efforts. For information on the event, visit www.ihopeoc.org.