Rob Bartlett is far from home. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the native of Portsmouth, England, spent his 73rd birthday at the white house across the street from St. Columban Catholic Church in Garden Grove. It’s a comforting place for the out-of-work computer programmer, where he can get a hot meal and a warm shower.
“I love it here,” Bartlett said over a bowl of chicken soup and salad. “The food is good. The volunteers are nice and their attitude is good.”
St. Columban Church’s People in Need ministry helps people just like Bartlett – those looking for a place to sit and relax for a few hours. Some live on the streets, others in cars or garages.
Held each Saturday for the past 17 years, the ministry was started by Sister Brid O’Shea with funding from a grant from the Irish Sisters of Charity in Dublin. At first, volunteers served sandwiches to the homeless gathered at St. Columban’s Murphy Hall.
“People were hungry,” O’Shea said. “So we wanted to give them something.”
The ministry is one of many programs run by parishes across the Diocese of Orange aimed at helping the county’s homeless population. Like many Catholic homeless outreach efforts in Orange County, St. Columban’s People in Need ministry is staffed by volunteers. They are a diverse group – graduate students from Chapman University, high school students working toward their confirmations and retired St. Columban parishioners.
Among the volunteers is Joe Rebelo, a retired Bank of The West employee. He has been volunteering at the People in Need ministry for three years, helping out wherever he is needed – scrubbing floors, serving lunches, or just listening.
“We don’t care where they’re from; no questions asked,” Rebelo said. “It’s like a family here. We want them to feel at home, even if it’s only for a few hours.”
Volunteers serve homemade egg rolls, croissants, coffee, soup and rice from a kitchen at St. Columban’s White House. There are several picnic tables set up in a patio covered by an awning. Haircuts are provided by a barber, as well as hot showers. Visitors can grab toiletries, snacks, clothing and sleeping bags. Up to 100 people walk in each Saturday.
“It’s a labor of love,” O’Shea said. “But you’re energized by the joy you bring into other people’s lives. It’s important to have someone to listen to them, and help give them a piece of their dignity back. We want to create a place for them to feel safe. You learn that each person has a story to tell.”
Many of those served at the People in Need ministry are senior citizens like Bartlett, who said he has been living on the streets for nine months.
He spent a career working for major corporations like Arco and Bank of America, making good money and driving a Rolls Royce. Today, however, he can’t get a job.
“I’m too old for the game,” he said. “Employers see my age and they don’t even want to look at me.”
So he spends his days on the streets of Orange County, moving from park bench to friends’ couches, searching for free WiFi signals so he can monitor the website homelesspersons.com, an online resource for the homeless to find shelter, food and clothing.
He carries a black laptop bag and his feet are wrapped in rags. His right ankle is covered in a cast he received after breaking his ankle in a recent fall. Bartlett said the hardest part about being homeless is not having a bed, a small luxury for a senior citizen who spends most of his day on his feet.
“If I’m tired, I simply can’t go home to rest,” he said. “You just try to get through each day. I’ve learned that nothing in life is guaranteed.”
After lunch, volunteers handed out cookies and O’Shea led the group in a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” her arm around Bartlett. Bartlett said he is optimistic about the future. He plans on making the long journey back home to the United Kingdom to care for his elderly mother. Until then, he lives each day as it arrives, grateful for the chance to start anew.
“Being homeless is not easy,” he said. “But I’ve seen both sides of life. One day I will be back on my feet.”