By Malie Hudson     12/19/2016

It is estimated that Orange County’s homeless population has grown 5 percent since 2013. At St. Martin de Porres Parish, volunteers in the Skid Row Ministry are helping to do something about the growing crisis in Southern California. Earlier this month, they brought a sliver of hope to the homeless men, women and children on Skid Row in Los Angeles.

“Today, we were able to provide over 300 lunches, about 5 dozen blankets and 300 tarps,” said Deacon Nick Sherg who has been volunteering with his family for four years. “One of my most powerful experiences today was when a couple came up to us and said that they felt so desperate and lost. My family and I prayed with them as they offered their intentions to be able to get off the street, become free from drugs and be able to look for help to get themselves out of their situation. Listening to their plea for help really touched my heart. I hope they were able to gain some strength.”

Eight years ago, parishioner Brendan O’Shea went to Skid Row with a friend to deliver bottles of water to the homeless on a hot day. Realizing the need, they returned to Skid Row two weeks later with a truckload of bottled water. Then they decided to empty their closets of clothing they were no longer using and brought those along with more water on the next trip. Later, they decided to bring lunches.

“The first time we brought lunches, we didn’t know how many to bring. So we just brought about 60. We opened up the back of the truck and started handing out the lunches. It was like a riot. There were people running around and they were going crazy trying to get to the food. We had no idea how hungry these people were. It was shocking to us. It was very emotional,” said O’Shea as he tried to hold back tears, recalling the memory from years ago.

Realizing that he needed help with organizing lunches, O’Shea reached out to Mary’s Kitchen, a volunteer organization based in Orange, which showed them how to prepare the lunches in larger quantities. Over time, word spread. Volunteers wanted to help with their time and donors wanted to share any supplies the group needed. Cartons of milk donations were coming in from Alta Dena Dairy, a parishioner who manufactures casters donated tarps, local food banks provided the food, parishioners donated clothing; and then six years ago St. Martin de Porres Parish officially adopted the lunch delivery program as a ministry. The parish helps to finance the ministry as well as provide the space to store and prepare donations. Now, every 6 weeks for the past 6 years, more than 80 volunteers gather at the parish on a Saturday to pack meals, cut tarps and organize clothing to deliver to the homeless on Skid Row the next morning. The volunteers and donors are made up of people from many denominations and youth groups who heard about the Skid Row Ministry and just wanted to help.

“I tell the volunteers that when you hand them a bottle of water or if you help them find a pair of shoes when they have none, look in their eyes,” said O’Shea. “It is a very gratifying experience.”

A lot of preparation and planning goes into making sure that the whole process goes smoothly. On Saturday morning, the volunteers meet at the parish hall to start the process of organizing the clothing by size and gender, cutting the large rolls of tarp down to ten by ten squares and rolling them up with rope, preparing hygiene kits of soaps and lotions and packing hundreds of lunches.

“We have it down to such a science that we made 300 lunches yesterday in about an hour,” said Jerry Seiger, a volunteer now for 7 years.

Volunteers return to church at 7 a.m. the next morning to load up the trucks and caravan to Skid Row.

“Today, we had 48 car loads of people,” said Seiger. The drive from the church to Skid Row takes a little over an hour. “Brendan is the first guy in line and he goes the day before to scout out the area. He hands out maps but we largely follow one another there. We had to turn around a couple of times because a spot wasn’t available. Imagine trying to turn around 48 cars. It’s unbelievable.”

Once there, the volunteers line up and set up the boxes of donations in front of them. The homeless are directed to pick up a bag at the beginning of the line and work their way through to pick up the items they need.

“The last time I was there I met a young man and he said, ‘I don’t belong here.’ He had an apartment with his wife and daughter and lost his job. He got a couple of pants and shirts from the donation box and I asked him if he got what he needed. He said yes. I told him to go back and get more but he said that he got what he needed, leave the rest for somebody else,” Seiger recalled. “We get to go home and these people are home on the sidewalk and the lucky ones have a tent or a tarp to wrap up in. Today we had a lot of winter clothing and I know that will be put to good use. Just being able to give somebody a little hope, that’s why we do it.”