Churches offer hot meals, warm place to sleep
By Sondra Murphy
With the weather turning cold and rainy, locals without homes are eligible to use the Ojai Valley Family Shelter for a warm place to rest and have a hot meal.
In its 16th year, the shelter locations change each night to one of six participating sites. Host locations are the Ojai Valley Grange, St. Thomas Aquinas Church, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Ojai Presbyterian Church, First Baptist Church and Ojai Valley Wesleyan Church.
“To my knowledge, we’re averaging 15 to 18 people per night,” said Pastor Lyn Thomas, of Ojai Valley Wesleyan Church. “Currently this season, we haven’t seen any children. We do have one couple and one or two other women who are staying at the shelter. Otherwise we’re seeing single men, a minority of whom have work.” The shelter is open from Dec. 1 to March 31 each year. “For the guests who stay, we do require some kind of Ojai Valley connection, such as they lived here in the past or have family here,” said Thomas.
Shelter guests are given a hot meal, foam mattress and access to a mobile shower facility four nights a week. Each site arranges the meals and Thomas said The Thacher School and Oak View Women’s Club are among those who contribute meals on his church’s host nights. “We also have a family that brings Christmas dinner each year,” said Thomas.
Rick Raine started off volunteering as an overnight host about 12 years ago and is now the shelter administrator. “My church, the Ojai Valley Community Church, put a notice in the bulletin that they needed someone to help out,” said Raine. ”The next year they needed a site coordinator, so I volunteered for that.”
Raine said volunteers are crucial to the success of the cold weather shelter. “We couldn’t do this without all the volunteers,” he said. “Everything is donated, the food, everything. We are a donation-based organization and get no government funding.” Raine said that one church was underwriting the shelter, but had to stop because of the economic climate. “Donations have definitely gone down.”
Each shelter site abides by rules and guidelines for an integrated approach to the effort, which Thomas said is well organized. “On the whole, we never know exactly how many volunteers we have, but our estimation is 200 or more people each season,” he said. Besides assisting shelter guests, volunteers help with general housekeeping needs, such as laundry.
“As far as the actual production each night, it is really quite autonomous,” Thomas said. “You can think of it as the shelter is the franchiser and the sites, the franchises.”
Both Thomas and Raine attributed the people involved with the shelter as the reason they continue assisting with the efforts. “The people, they’re very nice,” said Raine. “I would say there are at least 30 different church groups, service clubs and individuals who participate. Some sites have four or five different groups that come in, like the Boy Scouts, Nordhoff’s Interact Club and Villanova. During the winter season, we’re all an extended family.”
Thomas echoed the sentiment. “Some of the nicest people you would want to meet are at the Ojai Valley Family Shelter, on both the guest side and the volunteer side,” he said. “Right now, we are looking for a genuine mechanic who would take a personal interest in our shower vehicle. It’s a recreational vehicle that’s been remodeled with a full shower and it travels with the sites.”
“The shower unit needs to last a long time,” added Raine.
The volunteers have a lot of compassion for the guests. “There are a lot of root causes of their homelessness,” Raine said.
“Some people have just been dealt a bad hand and, along with the choices they’ve made, find themselves here,” said Thomas.
For the people who help the shelter offer a safe haven to Ojai’s homeless, Thomas summed up a common motivating factor: “There but for the grace of God go I.” That empathetic sentiment keeps the shelter operating year in and year out to benefit those who need a little helping hand during the cold months.
“There’s a difference between homelessness and houselessness,” Thomas said. “For the majority of our guests, the Ojai Valley is their home, but they don’t have a house. The flip side of that is that many people might have a house in Ojai, but it’s not their home.”
For more information about volunteering or using the facility, leave a message at 804-7094. Check-in is at 6 p.m. each day, with placement priority given to families, women, working men, then all others.
Ojai Valley Family Shelter
Ojai Valley Grange, 381 Cruzero St.
St. Thomas Aquinas Church, 185 St. Thomas Drive
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 409 Topa Topa Drive
Ojai Presbyterian Church, 304 N. Foothill Road
Ojai Valley Grange, 381 Cruzero St.
First Baptist Church, 930 Grand Ave.
Ojai Valley Wesleyan Church, 105 Topa Topa St.