Three parishes in Fullerton work together with community groups and city leaders to find concrete solutions to homelessness

By Greg Hardesty     11/22/2019

Three Catholic churches in Fullerton are being credited with being among the driving forces behind recent actions taken by the city to address the homeless crisis, which continues to grip communities throughout Orange County.

Fullerton is estimated to have a homeless population of between 370 and 400, while countywide, the number is believed to be between 7,000 and 10,000.

On Nov. 5, the Fullerton City Council gave the green light for construction of a new 150-bed shelter in the city to be run by the Illumination Foundation, the Orange-based nonprofit that provides targeted, interdisciplinary services for the most vulnerable of Orange County’s homeless adults and children.

The shelter, dubbed the Navigation Center, which will have 60 beds reserved for recuperative care, could open as early as January 2020, says Greg Walgenbach, director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace at the Diocese of Orange.

Walgenbach has been involved in supporting the Fullerton Tri-Parish Homelessness Collaborative, which includes St. Philip Benizi, St. Mary’s, and St. Juliana Falconieri Catholic churches. Those parishes are run, respectively, by pastors the Rev. Dennis Kriz, the Rev. Enrique Sera, and the Rev. Michael Pontarelli.

It was really the leaders of these three Catholic parishes that worked with the city to advance this movement, according to Walgenbach.

Working with representatives of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which has “conferences” that are active at each of the three churches, fathers Kriz, Sera, and Pontarelli also were instrumental in assisting the city of Fullerton in taking two other concrete actions to address homelessness.

In July, the city declared homelessness an emergency. And the city of Fullerton also recently gave the green light for a Safe Parking Program. In this six-month pilot program, which began in November, a city lot will be reserved for people and families living out of cars. The Illumination Foundation also will manage Fullerton’s Safe Parking Program, which will have room for 30 vehicles that will be allowed to remain in the safe, well-vetted and well-regulated area from sundown to sunrise.

The Safe Parking Program not only will allow people to have a safe place to park overnight, but also will offer such services as connecting the homeless to rapid rehousing or transitional housing to help get them off the street.

St. Vincent DePaul conferences work with people who are struggling on the streets on a regular basis, as well as people who are on the verge of homelessness. They provide such services as rental assistance and operate food pantries at churches.

“They are the weakest among us,” Father Kriz says of the homeless.

For the past two-plus years up until early this July, Fr. Kriz had been allowing some 30 homeless people to spend the night in the church parking lot, which has caused some friction in some quarters, including members of his parish (Fr. Kriz says, however, that over the last two years, his parish count has been stable and has actually gone up, and that collections only are slightly lower.). The homeless people who had been living in the church parking lot now total between 12 and 15 and live on a sidewalk adjacent to the church.

Help from others

Walgenbach and Fr. Kriz were quick to point out that other agencies and people have worked hard with the Fullerton Tri-Parish Homelessness Collaborative to get things done to tackle the homeless crisis. They credit representatives of FIMA, the Fullerton Interfaith Ministerial Association, as well as Fullerton ACT, a collaborative of churches that supports pastors, faith leaders, and nonprofit organizations by serving as an entry-point to community engagement in Fullerton, with providing invaluable assistance.

St. Juliana parishioners Mike Clements and his wife, Enedina, who run the St. Vincent de Paul conference there, also have been key players in efforts to find concrete solutions for the homeless, Fr. Kriz and Walgenbach say.

Some of the positive moves the city has made have been strongly supported by this broader collaborative, Walgenbach says.

The new 150-bed Navigation Center recently approved by the Fullerton City Council is critical to meet the needs of the city’s homeless population, Fr. Kriz said.

Fullerton is part of the north county SPA (Service Planning Area) that includes many cities addressing homelessness. New shelters are on tap for Buena Park and Placentia, but with a total of 70 beds combined, those shelters will not be enough to accommodate Fullerton’s homeless, let alone those in other north county cities, Fr. Kriz says. What’s more, he adds, those two shelters aren’t expected to open until June 2020.

That’s why the city council’s approval Nov. 5 for the 150-bed Navigation Center was a big step forward, he says.

He notes that in the Bible, James 2:14-17 encapsulates why he and others are working so hard to help the homeless in Fullerton:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.

If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?

In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.