A City of Angels for the Homeless
Editor's note: In the last issue of CT, editor in chief David Neff interviewed "homeless czar" Philip Mangano, who described his vision for ending homelessness in ten years. This month, we look at how one church in one of the most challenging cities in the nation is trying to do that. This is part of our continuing effort to report on how congregations and nonprofits are responding to the economic crisis.
Gazing out a large window in the pastor's office at Bel Air Presbyterian Church, Arlene Epps-Gray tells of how a mother who once owned a four-bedroom home surrounded by a pond and a barn became a homeless drug addict. She recalls a pivotal event, a childhood trauma seared into her memory.
"It all started out wrong," says Epps-Gray, looking out over the valley from the hilltop church once regularly attended by Ronald Reagan.
"My mother was killed by my father, and I was there. I was young, but I was still there. From there, things just progressed. I was passed around by my family members and never felt I belonged anywhere because they made me feel like I didn't. I guess getting high took me out of all that."
After spending 24 years addicted to alcohol, crack cocaine, and other drugs—along with a decade spent in and out of substance abuse programs and ultimately living on the streets of Los Angeles—Epps-Gray, 41, says the Lord brought Bel Air Presbyterian's head pastor, Mark Brewer, and his church into her life to save her family. She has been free of drugs and alcohol for three years.
A beneficiary of the Imagine LA program, Epps-Gray has reunited with her family, is living in a spacious, two-bedroom apartment in Inglewood, southwest of downtown LA, and is training for a career in substance abuse counseling.
Brewer, who founded Imagine LA, says the transformation of Epps-Gray illustrates how churches and synagogues can help the growing number of homeless families find homes and jobs. With 8,000 houses of worship in the Los Angeles region, and 8,000 homeless families with 18,000 children, Brewer imagines a day when no child sleeps on what are some of the nation's deadliest streets.
'A solution, not a band-aid'
Imagine LA (ImagineLA.org) began several years ago when Brewer heard local officials describing Los Angeles County as the "homeless capital" of the U.S. As a pastor in the wealthiest county in the nation, with 250,000 millionaires, Brewer was troubled.
On any given night, 73,000 people in LA are homeless—1 in 10 of the 744,000 homeless people nationwide. Living amid such extremes of wealth and poverty, Brewer talked to his elders—many of whom remembered former President Reagan's heart and generosity for the homeless on skid row—about what the church could do to engage and bless the community.
"How can you have the wealth that you have here and have this situation?" Brewer asks.
Describing Los Angeles as a 21st-century Babylon, Brewer draws on the prophet Jeremiah telling the exiled Israelites to seek the "peace and prosperity" of the pagan city. In 2006, believing the Lord was calling him to help these homeless families, Brewer founded Imagine LA, whose goal is to mobilize the faith community to sponsor and mentor homeless families to get into long-term housing and become self-sufficient.
Since the pilot program launched in late 2007, three churches and two synagogues have sponsored five homeless families. But dozens of major churches and synagogues are now coming on board, and Brewer expects the number of family sponsorships to grow to 30 by the end of this year, and to 200 by 2011. The program is attracting national interest because it seeks to address some of the root causes of homelessness—primarily unemployment, domestic violence, and substance abuse—and provide "a solution, not a Band-Aid," says Jill Govan Bauman, executive director of Imagine LA.