IT’S TIME TO WORK TOGETHER FOR HOUSING FIRST
St. Alban’s is a place that has always befriended the marginalized, homeless, refugees and people down on their luck. When Naomi and I first talked to the search committee of this church over four years ago, we were impressed by their vision of outreach. This small congregation has a giant heart for mission. We could tell right away that these were the kind of people we wanted to serve with. While St. Alban’s started the Welcome Church about three years ago, it is no longer the ministry of just one church or one denomination. Both clergy and laity from several congregations and denominations share in the work of the Welcome Church. We are blest by these wonderful partners and hope this is just the beginning.
Our mission, as we understand it, is to reach out to those less fortunate than ourselves, to those that are hurting or sad, lonely, discouraged, who feel their problems are just too big to handle. Our goal is to offer hope, encouragement, food, friendship and acceptance. Our message – “We accept you for who you are, not for what you have done in the past, not for what you will do in the future, but right here, right now. God loves you, and so do we. Let’s do church together”.
It is my habit to walk through Wells Park on Saturday afternoon before Welcome Church to invite people to the service Sunday afternoon, and to offer them a little ‘snack pack’ of cookies and applesauce or pudding. Kind of a coffee break without coffee. This practice has become an ice-breaker, a way to begin a friendly conversation, sometimes with old friends, sometimes with new people. Everybody likes a coffee break, even without coffee. I get to listen to people’s stories, where they have come from, where they spend the nights, what challenging situations they are facing. They share their problems, the things that make them happy, things that make them mad. And sometimes, they open up and share what their most pressing needs are. Not surprisingly, housing most often tops the list.
There is a minimal amount of housing available in our community for mentally handicapped people and those that agree to a long-term, church-related ‘rehabilitation’ program. But there is no short-term emergency shelter available for those who suddenly find themselves in a crisis situation, or when weather events like rain and cold or extreme heat put lives in danger for those living on the street. And what about those who need to find stable housing first so they can begin to put together a sustainable plan for getting back on their feet, but who don’t meet the criteria for the few programs that do exist in El Cajon? Nothing.
There are a number of churches that offer food pantries and other services for the homeless and marginalized. We applaud all these efforts, and we will do our best to support your ministries. But for El Cajon, the elephant in the room is housing. The need is “housing first”, and this is what the Welcome Church will be focusing and working towards in 2017.
El Cajon is a landlord’s market. It’s estimated that 99% of rental property is occupied right now. Only one percent of all rooms for rent with kitchen privileges is available. What used to go for $400 per month is now going for $600. What was going for $600 is going for $800 or $1,000. Good deals for rental property owners, but a huge mountain to climb if you are trying to get your family off the street, or even just yourself. I applaud all the churches, non-profits and individuals that are working to ease the plight of the homeless in our area, to improve their quality of life. I appreciate programs like Crisis House. I wish we had 10 more like them in East County.
El Cajon has not done a ‘bad’ job. It is just that so much more is needed. But anyone involved in serving those on the street knows we can and must do better. Let’s work together not only to meet the urgent needs of the homeless, but to work for emergency shelters and “housing first”, in order to make it possible for people to take the next steps towards a sustainable life. It’s time to get some boots on the ground. Let’s make this happen. I’m weary of assisting people to find rooms, working out a strict budget they can live with, and then in a month or two after they move in, their rent goes up, and there is no room in that budget for an additional $75-$100 a month. If you are fortunate enough to have a car, you have to give up your room and move back into your vehicle. But of course, not everyone is that fortunate.
People are hungry. People are hurting. They need mental and physical medical help. I know there is a shower ministry in the area now. There are places to find warm clothing, bedding and sometimes a hot meal. People with good hearts will continue to try to meet needs. There are as many reasons for why people are on the streets as there are needs, but whatever those reasons and needs are, let’s commit ourselves to “housing first”. We must all work together. The Welcome Church does not want to be a silo ministry. We want to work with other organizations who share our vision. I love this proverb: “By yourself you’re unprotected. With a friend, you can face the worst. Can you round up a third? A three-strand rope isn’t easily snapped”. (Ecclesiastes 4:12, MSG)
If this message resonates with you, I encourage you to contact us. If you’re an organization or a person who cares about these issues anywhere in San Diego, and you support “housing first”, share your ideas and experience with us. How can we work with you? How can you work with us? East County needs your assistance and your expertise. Join us in our efforts to eliminate homelessness in our community. In the meantime, we will continue to minister to the needs of the homeless as much as we are able.
We welcome your input, your comments, your critiques, your suggestions. We look forward to hearing from you. It’s time to work together for ‘housing first!’
Merry Christmas and Best wishes for the New Year,
Rev. Dave Madsen, Pastor
Welcome Ministry of El Cajon
(DBA) Welcome Church of El Cajon