Homeless giving back to the community

50895-Whittier First Day Coalition homeless shelter 003.jpg

Ted Knoll shows us the living quarters for those homeless at Whittier First Day.

Ted Knoll of the Whittier First Day Coalition keeps a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings detailing the community angst over the homeless shelter’s opening a decade ago.

It’s a little odd to hold onto all the reminders of the past, especially negative ones. But it’s in keeping with Knoll’s philosophy that a homeless shelter should not be out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Instead of hiding his residents, he boasts about them. He even sends them out to give back to the community.

On a wall above the bookcase where the scrapbooks are kept is a plaque celebrating the Community Angels, a volunteer program. These are not members of the community who volunteer at the shelter; these are shelter residents who volunteer in the community.

From 2004 to 2009, 250 shelter residents provided 6,000 hours of volunteer service at 180 local events for governmental and nonprofit agencies. As the award from county Supervisor Don Knabe states: “Their volunteerism has increased the self-worth and self-esteem of the homeless, broken down barriers of discrimination in the community and helped move Whittier from `NIMBY – Not In My Backyard’ – to Yes In My Backyard.”

On a recent sunny afternoon, Knoll gave me and Public Editor Larry Wilson a tour of the facility off Whittier Boulevard, which includes not only temporary housing, but social services, a kitchen/dining area for meals, and a health clinic that has recently been given the green light by the city of Whittier to expand.

I wrote a while back about how a small businessman lost his bagel shop, became homeless and began receiving hope from a group of churches’ homeless coalition in Rancho Cucamonga. I’ve also interviewed homeless expert Andy Bales with the Union Rescue Mission on Los Angeles’ Skid Row. But this story is more about a unique suburban model for rescuing people experiencing homelessness. The successful approach, called the Reciprocal Community Engagement Model (RCEM), is one other cities are checking out.

Last week, staff members from West Covina City Manager Andy Pasmante’s office took the tour and briefed the city manager on what they’d seen. Pasmante told me he was still gathering data on the various homeless services in the region. Not too long ago, West Covina balked at establishing a permanent shelter in the town after it was volunteered by a regional agency. Knoll’s Whittier First Day could be the bridge that helps the East San Gabriel Valley establish its first permanent homeless shelter.

Whittier First Day’s success is documented by a study released a year ago by the Center for Nonprofit Management. Knoll’s overarching theory is to first gain community support because “homelessness results and persists from a deficit of relationships as much as it does from a deficit of social services,” the report found. So it formed partnerships with the city, the county, other nonprofits and even with Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital. The facility’s Health and Wellness Clinic averages 500 visits a year in only two days of use per week. As a result, emergency room visits at nearby PIH dropped by 70 percent, saving the hospital about $1 million, the report found.

Likewise, on-sight social workers and job counselors helped 45 percent of its residents find employment in 2009. It also provides residents a savings plan and helped establish a nonprofit group made up of residents who elect officers to represent them at First Day staff meetings.

Last year, the residents even built and rode in a float in the Whittier Christmas Parade.

If a city wants to establish a homeless shelter, it should ask how the shelter will benefit the entire community. If the answer is “not much,” maybe it should not get built.

I’m sure Ted Knoll would not have it any other way. As the audit report on Whittier Area First Day concluded: “the homeless can be viable citizens.”

This entry was posted in environment, land use, Pasadena by Steve Scauzillo. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steve Scauzillo

I love journalism. I've been working in journalism for 32 years. I love communicating and now, that includes writing about environment, transportation and the foothill/Puente Hills communities of Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Walnut and Diamond Bar. I write a couple of columns, one on fridays in Opinion and the other, The Green Way, in the main news section. Send me ideas for stories. Or comments. I was opinion page editor for 12 years so I enjoy a good opinion now and then.

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