Volunteers offer community a Fresh Start

Homeless Encampment Under the City

La Mesa First United Methodist Church provides a practical description of its Fresh Start Saturdays program on their website: on the last Saturday morning each month, volunteers offer food, services and fellowship to those experiencing homelessness. However, the details Pastor Christian DeMent provides about the program are reflections on community connection, regional partnerships, and an underlying belief that their congregation is “compelled” to offer the program in faith.

Although the church has had to temporarily cut back and modify the program for COVID-19 related health precautions, that has not silenced their call to offer dignity and humanity alongside fresh food and hot coffee.

“One of the investments the church made to serve our neighbors most in need was to invest in a shower facility with lockers. It’s one of the significant ways to restore dignity. It’s amazing how someone can go into a shower, clean up and wash their hair and come out a completely different person,” DeMent said.

The volunteer group had to temporarily close the shower due to the pandemic, also switched to offering hungry community members Denny’s gift cards for takeout meals but DeMent is hopeful that June will offer a return to in-person offerings.

“We had upgraded our kitchen so we could serve 100 people, all seated together. It wasn’t the ‘haves’ on one side being given food and ‘have-nots’ serving from the other side of a wall; it was “let’s sit down together and share a meal and a conversation,’ it was community,” DeMent said.

DeMent, who grew up attending the 126-year old church, was initially concerned residents in the quiet neighborhood might question whether the church was drawing a homeless population to the area by offering services, but realized early on it was important to engage the community in a conversation about homelessness.

“We did not receive negativity and in fact, we often, when we were serving outside, had people walk by and ask what we were doing, then donate a $20 bill across the wall and thank us. I have to credit La Mesa residents for being open minded about this,” DeMent said.

La Mesa had 52 unsheltered individuals as of the 2020 point-in-time count that tallies homeless individuals one night each year. Although that number represents just 9% of the unsheltered homeless individuals in San Diego county, La Mesa Police Department recently launched their Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement or HOME program that sends clinicians on homeless calls with information on available services and has begun making a dent in that number. Those same local outreach workers, DeMent said, have connected with individuals through the Fresh Start Saturdays program.

“We interview and keep track of people’s names and connect people through the HOME program—  it’s been a wonderful connection and relationship, not just being able to respond to an immediate need but also helping find long term solutions,” DeMent said.

They have also built up a connection with East County Transitional Living Center in El Cajon, although DeMent says it is somewhat unfair that the neighboring community sometimes bears the brunt of homeless outreach.

“It’s obvious that development is happening for market value housing but at the same time it can be challenging to watch while we have a housing issue. Sometimes, people just end up getting on the trolley and going there to an El Cajon shelter and that’s not necessarily what should be done. We really need to work together as communities so no one neighborhood is providing all the resources,” DeMent said.

Providing long-term solutions across East County, he said, “starts with acknowledging there’s a need and I think La Mesa is doing a great job with that” then creating a bridge between faith-based communities and local government.

“We’re called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give water to those who are thirsty, build that bridge to long-term resources. The faith-based involvement in civic life has been somewhat lost but we can accomplish more when we work together,” DeMent said, such as pairing motivated congregation members with small government grants and growing community partnerships.

Not one to quietly work behind office doors, DeMent is intentional about putting Fresh Start Saturdays and other ministry programs out there for community visibility, whether he is planting vegetables at a community garden or working alongside other churches.

“Take the garden bed: obviously, we’re not going to be producing a lot but who knows what others might do with their produce— maybe they’ll see what we’re doing and donate it to their church or someone in need. We were intentional about not building a community garden on our own property; this way we engage with others, have a way to talk with our neighbors who might feel compelled to help, think differently about what they produce,” DeMent said.

The pastor, who was recently assigned to La Mesa in July of 2020, said a spare bit of extra space at the church might be used to expand services in the future as he settles in and the pandemic lifts.

“We have clothing but we’d love to have a little boutique where it would feel like a store. We have some space where we’d like to provide a housing element with someone who could be there on site to talk to our guests, provide resources. A partner church in Pacific Beach has a connection to dental students who do checks and cleanings. There’s an inherent humility, like ‘don’t brag’ but the other side of that is ‘you have to let people know what we’re doing so we can reach more people’ and find solutions,” Dement said.

More than anything, he said, “we’re just really looking forward to a day where we can freely operate again, sit down side-by-side”.

Currently, they’re hosting the program on the last Saturday of each month and Vista La Mesa Christian Church mirrors the program on the second Saturday of each month, but DeMent said he’d love to see other churches offer the same situation so there is a constant place of provision.

He calls the people who pass through ‘guests’ and would like to invite more of them to the table.