They dwell in cars, along river trails and in public parks. On any given day, there are thousands of men, women and children in Orange County living in society’s shadow, without a place to call home.
There are dozens of groups and ministries dedicated to providing assistance to the homeless, either directly through the Diocese of Orange and its parishes, or separately by independent nonprofit organizations.
Among them is Mercy House, started by Fr. Jerome Karcher in 1990 as Joseph House, a temporary shelter on Main Street in Santa Ana for 10 men. Today, the nonprofit organization serves thousands of homeless individuals each year in Orange County, Riverside and San Bernardino, providing transitional and permanent housing for single women with children, single men and individuals with HIV/AIDS.
“What you see on the street is not a statistic or number,” said Karcher, pastor at St. Vincent de Paul church in Huntington Beach, who founded Mercy House in 1990 while at St. Anne Catholic Church in Santa Ana. “These are men, women and children who have great dignity, and often that dignity has been lost or disregarded.”
Mercy House supports 24 programs helping a broad range of people – from the chronically homeless and those with mental disorders and physical disabilities, to stable families who have fallen on hard times.
This year, about 1,300 homeless individuals will be placed into permanent housing through Mercy House services.
“A person is much more likely to attain employment if they can go to an interview leaving an apartment,” said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House. “When you place someone in housing you help provide a sense of stability and community. There is so much desire to maintain employment and sobriety when someone has a place to call home.”
The long-simmering debate over homelessness in Orange County has recently reached a crescendo, with attention from homeless advocates, county officials and law enforcement officers focused on the large encampment along the Santa Ana River Trail near Angel Stadium. A U.S. District judge on Feb. 13 ruled that county and city officials must work with homeless advocates to find temporary shelter for the homeless at the river trail. As of Feb. 20, sheriff’s deputies and county workers have been clearing an area of encampments north of Katella Ave. as the homeless residents are being moved to temporary accommodations in motels, shelters, recuperative care and detox facilities.
There were 4,792 homeless individuals in Orange County in June 2017, according to the most recent count by 2-1-1 Orange County, a health and human services nonprofit organization.
“The common perception is that homelessness is exploding in Orange County – you look at the Santa Ana Civic Center, or the river bed, and it’s hard to dispute that notion,” Haynes said, adding that from six years ago, homelessness has decreased.
Few would argue that much work needs to be done.
Assisting those in need is a core tenant of Catholicism, which views housing as a basic human right.
“Each person has inherent dignity as a human being, and we have to reach out in some way,” Karcher said. “Helping the homeless isn’t unusual or heroic. It’s an appropriate response to living a Christian life.”
Faith-based programs across Orange County provide support for local homeless, whether it’s through temporary housing vouchers, permanent housing programs, women’s shelters and food kitchens.
Catholic Charities of Orange County operates one of the largest food banks in the county, handing out 200 bags of groceries each week. The organization, founded in 1976, works to connect the homeless with shelter, places about 25 families each month in temporary housing.
Those who are homeless are often not simply suffering from mental illness, substance abuse or unwilling to accept help. Those who call the streets home may have been struck by a sudden disability or illness, job loss, or lack support from other family members. They are young and old, men, women and children.
“Homelessness is a complex issue,” said Sharon Subia, a parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul in Huntington Beach who was once homeless and now helps those in need. Through the help of American Family Housing in Orange County, Subia was able to live in stable housing after more than 3 years without a home and to find work to support her children.
Subia said she is committed to spreading awareness and compassion – keys to helping those in need, Subia said.
“It starts with being educated, having a good heart and recognizing the inherit dignity of every human being,” Subia said. “Those who are going to be able to help the most are the people who do it out of the goodness of their hearts and because they want to uphold the miraculousness of every human being.”
To learn more about Mercy House, visit mercyhouse.net. For more information on homeless services in Orange County, visit rcbo.org/directory/shelters-and-homes