Addressing a community need: the homeless of Del Mar

By the Rev. Joseph Dirbas

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church

During the Christmas season, it is appropriate to take time to reflect upon those things in our lives for which we are thankful and also to raise our awareness of things lacking in our own lives and the lives of others. The city and community of Del Mar is a precious resource to the Parish of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (“St. Peter’s”), just as, since its ministry began in the late 19th century, St. Peter’s has been and remains a valuable resource to the city and community of Del Mar.

St. Peter’s recognizes and acknowledges its responsibility to our community and to our neighbors, both commercial and residential, as the Parish continues to discern God’s call for our ministries and outreach activities.

The homeless population in the United States continues to increase due to many factors, including high unemployment rate and the economic recession. According to the 2009 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, there were 643,067 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States.

In 2012, it is estimated that greater than 3.5 million people will experience homelessness. Surveys indicate a strong concentration of homeless reside in coastal states, with California, New York, and Florida accounting for 39 percent.

Like the rest of the country, San Diego County is experiencing rising homelessness. Local surveys report that there were 9,020 people experiencing homelessness in 2011, a 19 percent increase since 2008. From 2010 to 2011, the homeless population in Del Mar, Solana Beach, and Encinitas rose 3 percent. Currently it is estimated that in these three communities there are 202 homeless, 152 of whom have no access to shelter. Homelessness in our local community is a very real, present and growing challenge. We remain committed to acknowledging and addressing this issue.

St. Peter’s has discerned and acted upon a call to ministry to the homeless population in North Coastal San Diego County. Our ministry has taken two forms.

• Once a year we offer our parish hall as a two-week rotational shelter for homeless individuals and families in transition. Many of our guests from this program have gone on to secure jobs and housing and have worked their way off the street.

• Throughout the year, we offer assistance to members of the homeless community who may be considered chronically homeless due to psychiatric disorders, disabilities, or substance abuse.

Our ministry, Helping Hands, has been in operation for more than three years and offers food, clothing, and personal hygiene opportunities to homeless men and women. The Helping Hands Ministry evolved out of need, as the Del Mar community experienced an increased number of homeless persons requesting and needing assistance.

St. Peter’s is offering a response to those in need (the poor, the outcast, the marginalized of society) as we believe such to be our Gospel imperative. And, at the same time we are committed to being good neighbors and participants in the community (as we also believe that to be our Gospel imperative).

The reality is that the service we provide to our homeless brothers and sisters is just a drop in the sea of services they truly require. As some have correctly observed, St. Peter’s is not equipped to meet all the needs of the Del Mar homeless population. For instance, St. Peter’s does not have the resources to provide for medical or psychiatric needs, it does not have professional career counselors, and it cannot provide shelter beyond its two-week commitment to the Interfaith Shelter Network. However, that lack of professional resources does not mean that we should not do that which we can do to assist those who are in need, to feed the hungry, to encourage those looking for work, to restore some dignity and respect to those who are often dismissed as worthless and/or a drain to society.

Our goal has been and continues to be very simple: to provide a “hand-up” to those in need rather than a “hand-out”. We are very aware that much of what we do in our ministry might appear to be enabling negative behavior. However, our Clergy and our volunteers continually witness how a bit of assistance can be a life-changing event. There have been many who have come by our ministry and have received not only a bit of food and clothing but enough encouragement to make meaningful changes in their lives.

Several of those we served are no longer on the streets and now have employment and a roof over their heads. Our mission is to help and lift up those in need, not to perpetuate homelessness. Again, we believe this to be our Gospel imperative.

While many of our neighbors support our ministry, we acknowledge that some do not. We are always willing to discuss the ministry, and hear your concerns, with the goal being to improve the ministry and the community. As a result of many conversations with our neighbors and local community, St. Peter’s has instituted policies and procedures in the operation of our ministry to reduce negative impact to our neighbors. We have also been in direct communication with local businesses and the library to assist them, as needed.

Most important, we have spoken directly to our guests, requesting that they respect and value our neighbors as they respect and value the services we provide. We hold our guests accountable for their adherence to our Helping Hands “Code of Conduct”. We also know that there are members of the Del Mar homeless population who do not participate in our ministry. For those, just as every other Del Mar resident, St Peter’s does the best it can to see that those persons receive appropriate social services.

In closing, on behalf of St. Peter’s, I thank you for understanding that St. Peter’s cares greatly for its neighbors, for acknowledging that the Parish is addressing a community need caused by forces beyond our control. We invite you into active dialog on how we can best serve you as well as assist those persons in need.

Wishing you a blessed holiday season, Peace, and Blessings.