Louis was a UCLA graduate student, working towards his PhD in engineering, when he realized that college student homelessness was a massive under-the-radar problem. It bothered him. A lot. Louis felt compelled to do something about this problem and set his mind on opening a shelter to house homeless college students. He figured there might be a church, synagogue or mosque near campus that might be interested, so he set out to meet with congregation leaders.
Each time Louis presented his idea, he was met with sympathetic ears … but the answer was always a disappointing "no."
Louis pushed on. After meeting Louis, the Executive Director of the Westside (Los Angeles) Coalition for Housing, Hunger and Health, approached me shortly after I began serving as Senior Pastor at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Santa Monica, California. She said to me, “Pastor, there is a young man with a dream and I would like you to meet him”
By the time I met with Louis he had already spoken with some 50 other west Los Angeles and Santa Monica congregations. I was the 51st.
And I was the one who said “yes.”
Now I knew nothing about homelessness among college students but quickly discovered that some 10% of college students in California were homeless (and 20% hungry). While those numbers are higher in California than other parts of the USA, because of the high cost of housing in our state, I also found that this is a national problem, affecting students across the USA.
Louis’ dream was to open the “Bruin” shelter (“Bruin” is the nickname for UCLA athletes and students), staffed by volunteer students. It was to be the first shelter for homeless college students in the USA and only the second shelter for homeless people run by college students in the USA (the other shelter run by college students was at University Lutheran Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a shelter for the general homeless population). Student volunteers would serve as resident assistants and provide dinner and breakfast for our residents. They would also raise the funds for the ongoing expenses. Residents would be pre-screened by the student leaders and stay in the shelter for the entire semester, or until they could find more permanent housing.
Mt. Olive Church had been around since 1942. It is a small (225 members) but very active congregation. A large (100+ students) preschool. Home of the Westside Coalition for Housing, Hunger and Health. Host to fifteen 12 step groups and monthly jazz concerts as well as many other musical and community groups.
And, in 2015, a congregation with unused space in our facilities.
We allowed the shelter to turn two unused classrooms into a large dorm room for ten residents and let them use the Parish Hall balcony area for storage. Since the residents came in each evening around 7pm and left each morning at 7am, they were able to use other shared facilities like the kitchen and other spaces for study.
So, it was easy for our Congregation Council and for me to say “yes.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, this new venture was not without challenges and setbacks. We needed to get a zoning change to allow us to be a “hotel” in our neighborhood. We needed renovations to our facilities, adding a shower to one of our bathrooms and a sprinkler system to the new dorm room where 10 students would sleep. We opened and then had to shut down for a time because of these zoning and renovations needs.
But we also had amazing support from our congregation and community. Before approving the zoning change, the City of Santa Monica solicited comments from the community and received 62 responses, 60 of them positive! We had financial support from the Santa Monica City Council, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and the ELCA’s Southwest California Synod, among many others. A local architect did all the architectural drawings for the needed building changes and even found a local contractor to donate the renovations. A Los Angeles Times newspaper columnist became our champion. People would literally stop me on the street and ask how they could help!
The night we opened it rained. We had gotten homeless students out of their cars and off the streets into a safe, dry place to sleep, eat and study.
In addition to financial support, the shelter received amazing media coverage with articles on The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times newspapers among many others plus stories on PBS and NPR and a 2019 feature story on CBS Sunday Morning (which was followed by a Sunday Doonesbury comic about college student homelessness – I wonder where Garry Trudeau got that idea?)
Since we opened the Bruin Shelter, our college student homeless shelter ministry, now called “Students 4 Students Shelters,” has expanded to include the Trojan Shelter (staffed by volunteer students from the University of Southern California) in Los Angeles and the Aggie House in Davis, California (staffed by student volunteers at the University of California at Davis). Students are ready to open the Slug Shelter in Santa Cruz, California (staffed by student volunteers from the University of California at Santa Cruz) as soon as they can find a site. We are in conversation with student leaders at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego, among other campuses. All sponsored by Mt. Olive Lutheran Church.
All because the leaders of Mt. Olive said “yes.”
Lots of congregations have unused space, often nearly empty for six days each week. And the housing crisis affects every community. No one left Mt. Olive because we opened the shelter. On the contrary, Mt. Olive membership grew because of our shelter ministry. People joined our congregation because they wanted to be part of a church that served the community in this way. Our Congregation Council was unanimous in support for this effort. We did not feel we needed to go the congregation for an approval vote. The shelter paid/pays its own way. There was/is no financial burden for Mt. Olive because of the shelter ministry.
Maybe it is time for your congregation to say “yes?”
More information on Students 4 Students Shelters can be found at www.s4sla.org .
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