homeless summit

Bjorn Staverness, Rev. Mary Crist, Natalie Komura, Doug Schulze, and Jeff Hewitt speak at Homeless Summit. 

Interspersed around them at tables spread throughout Sunrise Church’s worship hall were folks who had previously been homeless.

They dressed like everyone else.

They looked just as sleepy as everyone else who arrived to the Homeless Summit by 7 in the morning.

Scattered among the guests were previously homeless business owners, construction workers, former grad students.

Now residents of the faith-based House of Decision and the House of Opportunity ranches in Cherry Valley, they were invited to offer firsthand insight as to some of the reasons people can be rendered homeless.

A dozen residents stood up and shared a few minutes of their life stories as a microphone was passed around the room.

Brandon Hebert did not share his story publicly as his colleagues did, but told those sitting at his table about his rapid fall from grace: he previously held a solid job in the aerospace industry as a composite technician. He owned a home. He was engaged.

Alcoholism tore his life apart. His fiancée left; and when he would miss too many days of work, it affected his employment — and within two months, he lost his house, as well.

His self-esteem fell to an all-time low, and he was homeless for a few months before he learned about the House of Opportunity, a regimented men’s program that helped him begin to rebuild his life.

“Some of those around you lived behind Dumpsters and ate out of trash cans, or waited at the AM/PM for the food that would expire — and you wouldn’t know it,” the homes’ founder Bjorn Stavness told summit participants. “Given the opportunity and the desire, people will change if you care to love them and are willing to go the distance.”

Stavness, who holds a bachelor of science degree in business management and a master’s degree in Christian education, was virtually handed a former hotel and turned it into the House of Decision, providing shelter to homeless women, many escaping horrific relationships.

People at both ranches were overcoming addictions and unfortunate circumstances that usually led to their becoming homeless.

Stavness discovered quickly that he did not have all the answers, and the learning curve was steep as to how to tackle the issues surrounding homelessness.

He was invited to address the summit to show that programs can be successful: his facilities essentially cost $100 per person each month, or $6,000 monthly to house nearly 60 men and women; only 20 percent of their expenses are recuperated from the residents; the rest of their income comes from donations.

The summit provided a platform to let featured speakers explain what has worked for the programs or agencies they are involved with.

The Rev. Mary Crist, an Episcopal priest at St. Michael’s in Riverside, explained how her church, no longer having its own congregation and renting it out to a couple of other congregations, has accumulated nearly $20 million in contributions and grants to build a 50-unit two-story homeless apartment complex on property adjacent to the church that has the potential to take nearly 70 people off the street.

Ninety percent of the staff who help with her church’s homeless ministry are homeless themselves, receiving a token $25 a day for their service.

In order for programs to work, “You have to build relationships with people, and get your ego out of it. You have to really want to do this, and see these people as your brothers and sisters,” Crist said.

Natalie Profant Komuro, deputy county executive officer-homelessness solutions, explained the continuum of care concept, and how various 20 or so departments across the county work in tandem to respond to community needs, collaborating with mental health, education and healthcare to — what really excited her — the assistance of animal care services that can help homeless people.

Victims of homelessness “don’t talk about the system, or the bureaucratic system’s response. They talk about that healthcare worker, or that mentor, who helped them get out of homelessness,” Komuro said.

County Supervisor Jeff Hewitt, another keynote speaker, pointed out that “California has a lot of the share of the country’s homeless population: it’s the best climate in the world — it’s the nicest in winter. We have a lot of resources available” to help homeless people, “yet why do we see increasing populations of homelessness in our streets and in our canyons?”

A lot of homeless people, he said, are “working two jobs and living in their cars.”

The biggest obstacle in tackling homelessness is the NIMBY effect, the “Not in my backyard” complaint that is often a barrier to development of low-income housing or provision of facilities that offer services to low-income populations, according to Hewitt.

“We have to work hard to convince others that building a program in their neighborhood is a positive thing for them. Homelessness will only be fixed when we build more units and make rents market competitive,” Hewitt said.

Keynote speaker Dep. District Attorney Deborah Lucky said, “Homelessness is not good for the homeless, and it’s not good for our neighborhoods,” something she also attributed to another keynote speaker, Bishop John Taylor.

“No one group, agency or individual can resolve the problem on their own,” she said, confirming that the ranches of Bjorn Stavness could not offer all services to all residents, any more than a single county agency has the resources to tackle every issue for each homeless individual.

“Their work alone is not enough. It’s an ‘us’ problem,” Lucky said.

She explained the work of “homeless courts,” which help remove barriers to homeless people who may be struggling with court fees and past due fines and court-related debts that can inhibit one from finding permanent shelter, obtaining specific documents, or finding a job.

She decried NIMBYism, noting, “We all have to take responsibility to help.”

Episcopal bishop Taylor opened the summit with an invocation, and told those in attendance, “Homelessness is the number one issue. We all have a personal and prophetic stake. It is Unwise to idealize this population; it’s a difficult group of people to work with, and it takes people with real commitment to be there and stay the course: sometimes you don’t hear a ‘thank you,’ or acts of kindness may not be reciprocated. When human beings become empathetic, we beging to love one another, and it becomes inevitable.”

Brandon Hebert, the House of Opportunity resident, told the Record Gazette after the summit concluded that he observed, “There’s still a sense of desire, but not a willingness” to really move things along and help get more homeless people off the streets.

Hebert believes in the efforts of transitional living facilities such as the House of Opportunity, where help is received quickly when called for.

“There, you feel more like you’re part of a squad, not a platoon,” implying that there is more personal interaction with staff than would be found if one tried to navigate county offices and programs.

“These places are not really promoted, and are comprehensive in helping people like me: I don’t have to wait four days to speak to a social worker. They take me where I need to go — to court, to get my license. It’s not policy driven, it’s love-driven.”

He felt that NIMBYism obstructed programs such as the one he is in.

“There’s not a one size fits all,” he said. “I’m not just another number in a system. I’m a person.”

Staff Writer David James Heiss may be reached at dheiss@recordgazette.net , or by calling (951) 849-4586 x114.

Staff Writer David James Heiss may be reached at dheiss@recordgazette.net , or by calling (951) 849-4586 x114.

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