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Advocating for the homeless in Claremont

I recently attended a talk at Pitzer College by Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, and left thinking how his words apply not only to the trust and community that he has established with mostly former gang members, but also with the mission of the Claremont Homeless Advocacy Program (CHAP) and the community support that has been abundant in Claremont.

I am aware that former gang members in Los Angeles and Claremont residents who currently find themselves unsheltered are very different communities. Moreover, there is great diversity among those lumped together under the term, “the homeless.”

Some head to work every day, yet are unable to meet the cost of a rental room. Some once held good jobs and maybe owned a house, but lost it all to some calamity, such as illness and substance use disorders. Still others have serious physical or mental impairments.

What all share, though, is the way they are perceived by society at large—often with negative judgment and rejection.

When Father Boyle spoke of the need to dismantle that rejection and to “obliterate the illusion that we are separate,” I thought of both the way that our homeless neighbors in Claremont feel marginalized and separate, and of the programs that invite them in. These include the morning shower program at St. Ambrose Episcopal and the United Church of Christ?s Blessing Box that is filled each day with food for those in need.

When Father Boyle told of his Homeboys‘ desire for “a safe place, a place of rest to reidentify who they are in the world,” I was struck by the similarity to the needs of CHAP participants and the goals of CHAP?s Overnight Guest Accommodations that opened six years ago next month.

On January 24, 2014, 11 men set up beds in the worship room of the Friends Meeting House. The overnight guest accommodations which began that night is not a shelter, but rather a part of a broader program to support single men and women with comprehensive services to enable them to make a new start in life.

Women joined the program within a few weeks, sleeping in the Friends? small library that can house two people. I write this as a CHAP volunteer.

Advocacy is the heart of the program, pairing volunteers with individual participants to build one-on-one mentorship relationships. Advocates help participants formulate specific goals, provide practical support to address the specific issues that may arise and assist in arranging (and providing transportation to) job interviews, court dates, or medical appointments.

Creating a safe place was a big part of CHAP discussions from the start, with this stated philosophy: We believe that providing participants with a combination of friendly mentorship and a safe place to sleep is a powerful way to help them get back to work.

We have seen that by serving as a friend, a volunteer can change a homeless person?s life.

The men refer to the room where they sleep as the sanctuary. When I hear them say “sanctuary” I think, “Yes, this is the room where Friends worship, like a sanctuary in a church, and it is also a sanctuary in the sense of a place where they feel safe.”

Almost six years into the program, CHAP has opened the accommodations every single night. What makes this possible is a cadre of volunteer hosts—many from area faith communities, most notably Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church. Some of our hosts have been with the program since it started.

The accommodations are open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., and we have three hosting slots each day:

—The “opening host” serves from 7:45 to 10 p.m. and literally opens the building, welcomes participants, checks them in and joins them in the fellowship room, while they heat up food, eat, shower and socialize.

—The overnight host arrives at 10 p.m. and stays until 6 a.m. Three of the four men who currently serve as overnight hosts are former CHAP participants who wanted to give back.

—At 6 a.m. the breakfast host arrives, remaining until 8 a.m., setting out breakfast, gently overseeing chores and locking up the building.

Many of our participants grew up here or are longtime Claremont residents. Not all stay with the program, but we have helped at least 15 to move on to sustainable housing and many others to get through a tough time. Some work at warehouses; some provide home care; another is a professional counselor for LA County who writes movie scripts in his spare time.

CHAP could not do what it does without the generosity of the city of Claremont and Claremont institutions, ranging from the cooperation of the police department to a recent grant from the Claremont Community Foundation for employment training and education. Individuals and faith communities contribute greatly, providing the majority of our funds. Others donate needed services and morale-boosting gifts.

Claremont dentist Dr. Harry Brown offers full dental care without charge for our participants, several of whom had major work done. (I remember arriving at CHAP one morning to see a participant who had seldom smiled give a big grin showing his new teeth.)

A former CHAP volunteer, knowing how difficult it is for our participants to find affordable housing, looked at her two empty bedrooms and thought, “I could rent them to CHAP graduates.” She did, and when the original renters moved on, she rented to two others.

Finally, I will never forget the expression on participants? faces when, a few years back, we entered the fellowship room one evening to find the table heaped with t-shirts, socks, sweatshirts, nightgowns and several pairs of shoes.

A local Girl Scout troop spent the money they earned selling cookies to buy the clothes. As the participants gathered up items in their size, it was clear they really liked the gifts but were perhaps even more moved by the unstated but clear message: “We care.”

Thank you, Claremont, for standing behind us as we reach out to those experiencing the pain of homelessness.

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