With the holiday season upon us, many families have merrily decorated trees, stood in long lines for deep discounts, and wrapped gifts in anticipation of Christmas morning. Others simply try to stay warm on freezing nights, huddled in small tents in makeshift, temporary encampments scattered throughout Eastern Madera County.
Homelessness is never a pretty picture. Add the holidays to the mix, and it can bring about an increased sense of deep loneliness and bleak despair.
Just as in the past few years, three churches have signed on to help shelter the homeless during the upcoming winter months. Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church will open Sunday nights, the New Community United Methodist Church Wednesday nights (following the community meal), and Evangelical Free Church Thursday nights.
“We need more volunteers to spend the night, and would like to get more churches on board,” Michael Baird of Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church said. “When that happens, maybe we can pick up another night.”
“I’ve been in town for almost four years, and we have done everything possible to get other churches involved in this,” Helen Mansfield, pastor of the Methodist Church said, “but it still remains the same three churches. I’d like to know what other area churches are doing with the gospel and scriptural command to care for the least of these.
“Let me tell you how nonthreatening this is,” Mansfield continued. “I stayed overnight with the homeless alone last year. Now there are some who would call that foolish, but when you come to know these people, when you come to know their stories, your heart can’t help but go out to them. These are our sons and daughters. These are people who have grown up here.”
Baird maintains it’s important to develop a one-on-one relationship with the homeless, to learn each individual story. It’s a proven practice for Baird, who has developed stable friendships with many of the Mountain Area homeless, the number of which hasn’t changed much. They just aren’t as visible or hanging out as close to town. There are also those who “couch hop,” crashing on a friend’s couch a couple nights a week.
“There is a huge misconception out there that the homeless want to be homeless,” Baird said. “While there are a handful who are content with that lifestyle, the majority want to have consistent housing and employment.”
“A lot of the homeless are trying to find work, to find homes, but many in the community don’t see those people. They just see the ones who are causing problems,” Mike Rawlings, Thrift Shop manager at the Methodist Church, said. “And when they don’t see the homeless around anymore, they assume they got arrested - not that they’re working.”
“I admire Michael (Baird) so much,” Mansfield added. “He works really hard trying to ease these guys back into productive lives, and now we follow what he does. We require people who come to us needing assistance to help out around the grounds - maybe pulling weeds or blowing leaves. We develop relationships with the homeless, which can really make a difference.”
Mansfield cited an example of one couple who stayed in the church shelter last winter, and by the end of the season, the man had found a job. However, the couple still had nowhere to live.
“So we let them sleep on our front porch at the church, and gave them a spot to tuck their stuff away. Michael (Baird) or I gave him a ride to work when he needed it, and now they are off the streets, renting a room,” Mansfield continued. “This happened because he had a willingness to work, and because of relationships, where we could help and encourage him at steps along the way - steps that could have been stumbling blocks without that extra push.”
It is hoped that, over time, other area homeless will reach such a promising lifestyle change.
“We’re trying to move the homeless beyond the streets, and we could use some help,” Mansfield said. “There are so many churches in town, and there are plenty of people who could volunteer to spend the night - just once. We hear around town that we’re enabling the homeless, but here’s the thing. While there is some truth to that, what would you do with a 10-year-old? Some of these people are like a child in their ability to socialize and follow through. They’ve had to become really good manipulators to survive on the streets. I just wish people weren’t so quick to judge. Learn to know their story. Find out when things went south. And then commit to do something to improve their lives.”
The homeless apartment complex in Oakhurst opened with little fanfare on Nov. 1. So far, there are six residents, a seventh is expected to move in later this month. About 15 completed applications, hoping to be selected for tenancy.
For the most part, the community sees this facility as a step in the right direction..
“Even those who were pretty resistant initially have become supportive, once they learned the bigger picture,” Baird explained. “This is good for everyone ... for the homeless and for the community.”
Baird, who is out there in the trenches, definitely walks his talk. Over the years, while heading home on a cold and wet night, he may spot a homeless person walking down the road. If he knows them, he takes them home with him for the night. He reminds, again, that these are people he knows, that this is a long process, which can begin with simply taking a homeless person to McDonald’s a dozen or so times, and really listening to their stories.
“Usually on Christmas morning, I go out informally and take a few of the homeless to breakfast. There are several unsung heroes in our community ... who are doing a lot for our poor and for our homeless.”
One “hero” lost his job, the only source of income for his family of four. Even so, he set aside about $40 each week from his unemployment benefits to purchase sandwiches. He would then find a spot where the homeless congregated, share a meal, and spend time listening to their stories and sharing God’s love.
“Having programs is great, but ultimately a personal relationship is more impactful and long term,” Baird said. “That way, you’re a part of someone’s life on a regular basis, you have gotten to know their stories, and, who knows ... you may ultimately invite them into your home one day.”
Christmas Day brunch
The New Community United Methodist Church will hold a Christmas Day brunch, 11 a.m. Ham, coffee and juice will be provided. Community members are asked to bring breakfast dishes to share in a meal with the church congregation and the homeless.
Those interested in volunteering at the church shelters can call Michael Baird at (559) 683-6472.