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La Jolla churches work together to help neighbors in need

Although differences in religion sometimes divide people, those of different faiths can also come together to work for a common purpose.

One example is the Interfaith Shelter Network, which has been providing temporary shelter to the homeless for more than 20 years. The organization helps the homeless to secure employment and housing so that they may become productive members of society.

Several La Jolla churches are involved in the Rotational Shelter Program portion of the network, in which each church provides shelter for two weeks on a rotating basis. Volunteers from each congregation help for the two weeks their church hosts the homeless. During the time they are sheltered by the churches, participants may receive job training and attend classes on subjects such as how to budget or how to interview for a job. If they are already employed, clients often will save money to be able to afford housing after the rotations are completed.

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“Many of them are working and using this brief time to put together a nest egg so they can be on their own,” said Philip Roeder, who is in his fourth year as the coordinator for St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.

The Interfaith Shelter Network deals with the section of the homeless population known as “transitionally homeless,” which means that their reasons for homelessness are personal or financial, not related to mental illness or drug abuse.

Participants arrive in the evening. They are provided dinner and are able to spend the night at the church. In the morning, they are given breakfast and a sack lunch to take with them, and then they return that evening. During the time they spend in the churches, they are able to shower and take care of things such as laundry and ironing.

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Success stories are plentiful. “We have had a single mother who was finishing her credential so she could become a teacher’s aide,” said Roeder, who also said that the woman was able to secure employment and housing by the end of the program.

“There are a few people for whom we don’t know the ultimate outcome,” he said, adding that “what we can do is provide people the opportunity to get their lives in the direction they want,” said Roeder. However, he also said Network volunteers often hear from people they have helped. For example, at an orientation Roeder attended, he met a man who was running a program for homeless veterans who had himself spent time in the Interfaith Shelter Network.

Donna Doyle, who described the Interfaith Shelter Network as “an absolutely phenomenal program” and is the coordinator for All Hallows Catholic Church, said that one important function the churches provide for those they host is a sense of dignity and being a part of the human family. She also said that having a place where the homeless people know they will be safe and warm for the night provides a particularly important psychological boost to people who are trying to get back on their feet.

Doyle told of a woman who stayed at the shelters while she juggled two jobs, had no means of transportation and had been to many different homeless shelters.

“She said that this was the most special, quiet and safe place that she had been, because she had been in an abusive relationship,” Doyle said. Doyle also said that a group of women in her church made handmade quilts for the homeless people to take with them when they left.

“Those quilts actually brought tears to those big men’s eyes,” said Doyle. “One said that it reminded him of his grandmother.”

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“An important thing we provide is hospitality,” Roeder said, “a sense that they are valued as our neighbors, which is important when they are facing a transition like this.”

Church volunteers who run the two-week rotation for their churches said they find the experience to be an extremely fulfilling one.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s enormously rewarding,” said Roeder. “It’s not only doing something good for the community, but it is rewarding for the people who participate.”

“It’s heartwarming to know that if you can just give a little bit, that a new door can open for someone,” said Doyle. “These people really want help, and they just need that hand to get them over to the next step. They just need that extra little boost.”

Other participating area churches are La Jolla Lutheran Church, Pacific Beach United Methodist, Christ Lutheran Church, La Jolla Presbyterian, St. Bridget Catholic Church and Good Samaritan Episcopal.

Visit www.interfaithshelternetwork.org for more information on the Interfaith Shelter Network.