Volunteers begin work to assist homeless this summer

Summer may be the season of relaxation and an occasional getaway from the usual workload, but members of the Claremont Homeless Advocacy Program (CHAP) are just getting started with their latest assignment.

Last month, the local nonprofit kicked off its Summer to End Homelessness project, geared at helping homeless individuals obtain permanent housing.  On Saturday, about 50 volunteers gathered for the first time at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church to train for the weeks of work ahead.

Contributing to the workload is the fact that this project is a brand-new endeavor, built from the ground up by project directors Paul Wood and Mary Cooper and a handful of core members, including Karl Hilgert, the retired executive director of an organization back east that provides for the homeless, and Andrew Mohr of the Claremont Area Living Assistance Program. They are taking the effort in stride as they seek to reverse the numbers of those stuck on the streets.

“Like any social problem, we to tend to close our eyes to it and pretend it doesn’t exist or at least minimize it.” Mr. Wood said. “We hand out the obligatory $3 or $4, which is well intended, but does not get to the root of the problem.”

The advocacy campaign started in the fall of 2012 with the creation of a subcommittee of Claremonts Religious Society of Friends (Quaker). The committee was formed to more seriously address the issue of homelessness in the community after recent events in Claremont shed light on the extent of the city’s homeless situation.

Los Angeles County holds the nation’s highest homeless population. A count conducted last February indicated that at least 30 homeless individuals reside in the streets of Claremont. Some speculate that number may be conservative. Given the breadth of what defines homelessness, those numbers could vary, Mr. Wood acknowledged.

“Certainly, there are the stereotypical cases people often think of…but we have also discovered a group of homeless individuals who are actually working but don’t make enough to pay for a sustainable place to live,” Mr. Wood explained. “Since the financial crash there are more people living in cars or motels and going from place to place.”

Mr. Wood and CHAP volunteers want to provide the assistance for those who seek it. However, without enough money or the forces to properly aid their efforts, the group’s campaign had reached a crossroads.

“We realized we were kind of powerless,” Mr. Wood said. “We needed more help.”

The Friends turned to other community members interested in a project like the Summer to End Homelessness campaign. Dozens signed on, including Father George Silides, pastor at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in Claremont. Before joining the St. Ambrose congregation in 2012, Fr. Silides was instrumental in running a relief center for the homeless in Juneau, Alaska, where he worked as the former pastor of another Episcopalian congregation. Other than his work with St. Ambrose, Fr. Silides admits he has had a difficult time rooting himself into his new hometown. Being a part of the advocacy group’s efforts, he says, has given him the renewed sense of purpose he was searching for.

“This project has helped me find a way I can make a difference in this community,” the reverend shared.

In Alaska, Fr. Silides worked collaboratively with a network of local churches to keep the relief shelter running. He believes the network of CHAP volunteers will be equally instrumental in creating change in Claremont, helping to highlight the need of the local homeless population for those in city government who make a difference.

For now, they are taking matters into their own hands.

Mr. Wood, who has helped a few homeless individuals find permanent housing in the past, has modeled the Summer to End Homelessness project after his own experience—taking into account his successes and steering away from the learned pitfalls. Such as establishing volunteers as “advocates.”

“I found if I called myself ‘a friend,’ I was told to go away,” he explained. “If I introduced myself as a person’s advocate, I was taken seriously.”

There is also the challenge of navigating agencies in order to obtain sustainable housing and needed services. There can be a lot of paperwork and procedure, Mr. Wood noted. And some cases can be more challenging than others, like when an individual does not have identification or even a birth certificate.

“Every time I went through the process it was different,” Mr. Wood said. “You learn something new every time.”

CHAP’s core team will be available to assist volunteers, who will be paired up in teams of 2, should they need the help. Within the next few weeks, Mr. Hilgert and Mr. Mohr will be stepping in to seek out homeless individuals looking for guidance. By the end of the summer, volunteers hope to at least have begun taking a more active step towards helping those that need it.

“We realize you can’t just wave a wand and end all homelessness, but we can certainly end it for certain individuals seeking the help,” Mr. Wood said.

For more information on the Summer to End Homelessness campaign or for details on how to get involved, contact Paul Wood at paul_f_wood@yahoo.com or Mary Cooper at maryclaremont@aol.com.

—Beth Hartnett



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