Give Me Shelter

Interfaith group plans more homeless services

By Paula Harris

In the face of rising demand, Petaluma religious leaders and local homeless advocates are joining to explore ways to shelter the community’s growing homeless population.

“Homelessness is getting worse instead of better,” says John Records, executive director of COTS (Committee on the Shelterless), a non-profit organization that runs Petaluma’s only homeless shelter. “I’m fearful federal budget cuts will cause even more people to be on the street.”

The year-round COTS shelter uses nearly $300,000 in city, county, and federal funds. Shelter officials routinely are forced to turn away about 30 homeless families a month.

On Thursday, a coalition of church leaders met to discuss a plan that would reinforce the city’s homeless services.

An emergency solution may lie in a program currently working in Eugene, Ore., which uses that city’s churches and synagogues to house the homeless.

The Rev. Lynda Burris–pastor of the United Church of Christ and a member of EARTH (Ecumenical Association Regarding the Homeless), a group of Petaluma clergy and residents that addresses community spiritual and physical concerns–says the interfaith shelter program may be a model for Petaluma’s 37 churches and one synagogue.

Last week, religious leaders met with Jake Dudell, program director of the Eugene shelter program called “First Place.” That program is a project of St. Vincent de Paul, the main agency that seeks funding from the government sector and private donations. First Place began as a grassroots effort to help Eugene’s homeless families in 1990. In the last six months, the program has doubled to include 43 churches and one synagogue.

Dudell says churches rotate their assignments, and each participating congregation signs up for one or two weeks per year. The program is open during the school year.

During its participating week, a church provides sleeping areas in fellowship halls (chapels are not used), and the host congregation provides volunteers to staff the program. Church volunteers supply evening meals, breakfasts, supervision, and transportation for the homeless families. Smaller churches that don’t have the space, participate by providing support services.

A similar project in Marin met with stiff community resistance, since it would have brought the homeless out into neighborhoods that were not used to dealing with the issue. The COTS shelter is located on an isolated stretch of Petaluma Boulevard South, near Highway 101 and several blocks from residential neighborhoods.

The city of Eugene also has a year-round day facility for homeless families, which provides other services and supplies. Since the Eugene area has an established transitional housing program, Dudell says, the First Place program is simply a 30-day emergency solution for families awaiting low-income homes, subsidized through federal Housing and Urban Development grants.

Petaluma already has a day center established within the COTS shelter, but not much transitional housing. “We have some transitional housing countywide, but not nearly enough,” explains Records. However, Dudell says that shouldn’t deter the creation of a similar interfaith shelter program in Petaluma.

“You can’t solve all problems at once,” he adds. “You should create an advisory board with subcommittees to start on transitional housing, but you can’t wait for everything to be perfect to start.”

Dudell, a former U.S. Peace Corps community development specialist, says he’s had to “sell” the shelter concept to Eugene churches. One of the program’s weaknesses has been in training church volunteers. “It’s very difficult to train volunteers from many different backgrounds in crisis management,” he says. “It’s hard to take raw material and turn that into a social worker overnight.”

Although volunteers searching for spiritual enrichment may find their reward working for such a program, which Dudell says can really “pull a congregation together,” he is quick to point out there are serious challenges involved in working with essentially dysfunctional families.

“Each family is different, with different problems that mirror the problems in society–problems deeper than homelessness,” he explains “They take on the ills of society, absorb them, and act them out.”

Dudell adds that participating faith centers shouldn’t view the program as an opportunity to convert families. “We ask churches not to proselytize,” he says. “It’s OK to talk about faith, but we don’t do prayers before dinner or have a minister preach.”

Indeed, just what constitutes a family is a sensitive issue. Faith centers are asked to accept gay and lesbian couples, single parents, and unmarried couples as long as there’s a child or children included.

Records says he’s supportive of a program that would create extra capacity for needy families. Last month, the overflowing COTS shelter (which can serve about a dozen families) turned away 32 families for lack of room–and the weather is still relatively warm.

The local EARTH group will meet again Wednesday, Nov. 1, to discuss whether an interfaith shelter program could work in Petaluma. According to Dudell, the first step would be to enlist a salaried leader to coordinate the program.

Meanwhile, Records says that although COTS is “not seeking to build an empire,” if no other agency or individual steps forward, the COTS board of directors is willing to take on the project.

While the proposed federal government cuts are a dark cloud, he adds, the possibility of communities taking more responsibility in helping needy people may be a silver lining.

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