Counting down

Counting down

Pasadena’s homeless population has declined in recent years, thanks in large part to people like Joe Colletti and organizations like Friends in Deed 

By Justin Chapman , Nick Smith 01/23/2014

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Last week, dozens of Fuller Theological Seminary students and community volunteers met in Payton Hall on the Fuller campus to prepare for the annual Pasadena Homeless Count and Subpopulation Survey. The Office for Urban Initiatives (OUI) at Fuller, a community-based nonprofit research organization, in collaboration with the city and the Pasadena Housing and Homeless Network, conducts the survey each year to more accurately estimate the population of Pasadena’s homeless residents on a given day.   

Pasadena has been conducting the headcount, which was performed Wednesday night, since 1992, after the US Census reported there were 432 homeless persons in Pasadena. Not satisfied with this number, Joe Colletti, an adjunct professor at Fuller, went before the Pasadena City Council and proposed an official homeless count. The idea, Colletti said, was that a more accurate number could better inform policy with regards to funding aid programs for the homeless.  “We really were very intentional about ending homelessness in Pasadena,” Colletti told the Pasadena Weekly. “And the best way you can measure that is by doing annual counts that will show the numbers are either going up or down.”

In September 1992, 250 volunteers canvassed the streets and shelters of Pasadena and determined approximately 1,017 persons were homeless — more than double the Census estimate.

‘Well-oiled machine’
Colletti has an extensive resume regarding homelessness and community development. He is the founder and CEO of the Institute of Urban Initiatives and co-founder and CEO of the Episcopal Housing Alliance and Economic Development. He currently serves as director of OUI at Fuller, where he has taught urban development for more than 20 years. Over the years, he has created numerous residential and nonresidential programs aimed at helping people with mental illness, substance abusers and victims of domestic violence. 

In February, the Ecumenical Council of Pasadena Area Congregations named Colletti its “Person of the Year,” among other local- and state-government awards he’s garnered.

For such an accomplished person, Colletti has not forgotten the spiritual calling with which his passion for the underprivileged began.

“I believe that the biblical command is to solve social injustices, not avoid them,” he said. “The idea is to end them.” Now, after more than two decades of experience in conducting the count, “it’s a well-oiled machine,” he said. “The more key persons we got together and the more often we got together, the better we got at implementing homeless counts. As volunteers come back each year, we get better and better.”  This “well-oiled machine” has been so successful here in Pasadena that similar programs have been implemented across Southern California under Colletti’s guidance. A homeless count and subpopulation survey is now required by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Program. While the continuum of care program had focused for many years on moving homeless people from the streets to transitional housing and eventually into permanent housing, this was determined to be quite costly; it could take an average of two to three years before a homeless person obtained permanent housing. According to Colletti, this method has proven to be more effective.

“If I was a homeless person and you were helping me while I’m in housing, you’re going to be a bigger help to me because I’m housed,” Colletti said. “You’re helping me not lose it.”

‘They’re just folks’
The Weekly reported in April that after a spike in the number of homeless persons in Pasadena beginning in 2008 due to the Great Recession, reaching its peak in 2011 with 1,261 persons, the 2013 count reported a promising 37 percent decrease in the number of homeless people over the last two years, with 772 homeless people living in Pasadena. 

HUD defines homelessness as someone living in 1) a place not meant for human habitation, such as cars, parks or abandoned buildings, 2) an emergency shelter, or 3) transitional or supportive housing for homeless persons. It must be noted that count figures do not include those residents at extreme risk of becoming homeless. In fact, one in four Pasadena residents live in a household with an income of $15,000 or less, according to an OUI report.  Still, Colletti and hundreds of volunteers are committed to ending homelessness in Pasadena. Homelessness for Ron Crosthwaite, a volunteer in Wednesday’s count, hit close to home and inspired his participation.

“My son had a drug problem and that really led to his homelessness,” he said. “He went into this homeless phase and then just disappeared altogether. We didn’t see him for six months.”

Fortunately, his son checked into the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center in Pasadena, got clean and is now working as an interstate truck driver. But his close encounter with homelessness helped Crosthwaite realize something which perhaps inspires other passionate anti-poverty advocates like Colletti in their work: “Your image of the homeless is one thing and the people that you meet are entirely different,” said Crosthwaite. “They’re just folks.”

Shelter from the storm
Friends in Deed, a division of the Ecumenical Council of Pasadena Area Congregations, has been providing homeless services in the area for 120 years. Richard Cheung, a chiropractor who serves as one of the co-chairs on the Friends in Deed Board of Directors, said he’s proud of the Women’s Room, Food Pantry and Bad Weather Shelter that are all run by the nonprofit organization.

“From what I’m seeing as a resident and business owner in Pasadena, at one point from a very completely subjective observation the homeless population looked like it had dropped,” said Cheung. “That was confirmed by the head count that the housing department did. We would like to take part of the credit in that with what we do over at Friends in Deed. Obviously there are other agencies but we definitely like to take credit for that along with the others. We’re the agency of last resort, which is really important because when you’re in need you’re in need.”

This winter the Bad Weather Shelter is only being opened when the temperature drops to 40 degrees and there’s a 40 percent chance of rain. The shelter first opened in 1986 and was located at the Salvation Army gymnasium until 1989. It then moved to its current location at the Pasadena Covenant Church, located at 539 N. Lake Ave., next to the Foothill (210) Freeway and the Metro Gold Line Lake Ave. Station. Colletti served as the first director of the shelter.
In November 2012 the city of Pasadena discontinued its usual contribution of $60,000 to keep the shelter running. Now the shelter relies on donations to stay afloat.

So far Pasadena has experienced unseasonably warm, summer-like weather, so the shelter has not yet opened this winter. When it’s open, the Bad Weather Shelter serves everybody who needs a place to sleep, which is why Cheung got involved with Friends in Deed.

“We get right to the heart of the matter,” he said. “We don’t dance around. We’re really impactful. We make a difference, truly, yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

They may have started out as a Christian organization, but now they’re interfaith, said Cheung.

“We’re nonjudgmental,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian, Jew, Muslim, or atheist; if you are hungry and homeless we will feed you and give you shelter, because that’s what people do.”

Cheung said that the shelter is always looking for support, whether it’s financial or through volunteering, adding they don’t want to be Pasadena’s best kept secret.

Recently Mayor Bill Bogaard asked Friends in Deed to co-host with him during his 41st annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, which will be held April 30 at the Pasadena Convention Center. The keynote speaker will be Elise Buik, CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

“We really want the community, businesses and residents, to really take part, regardless of your political views. No matter how the economy is doing there will always be people in need. That’s just a fact.” 

For more information on Friends in Deed, visit friendsindeedpas.org or ecpac.net.

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