Street Life Ministries has been given a challenge by a local family to match up to $1 million to start a new program aimed at getting homeless people permanently off the street. The “Homeless to Healthy” initiative represents a major expansion from the free meal service that the Redwood City-based ministry provides for homeless people in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, operating it out of “borrowed” kitchen facilities.
Homeless to Healthy participants would be given food, housing assistance, job training and faith-based counseling in a permanent new facility, with a mission to get them fully integrated back into society. “We’ve been here for 20 years, feeding the homeless,” says David Shearin, Street Life’s lead pastor/executive director and a former addict. “We’ve grown enormously, built a huge reputation for who we are and what we do. But we’ve never put our feet into a recovery program.” That is now in reach because of the $1 million matching gift from a local family’s charitable fund. They want to remain anonymous.
Street Life, which has a year to raise the second million, put out the first appeal July 8, telling contributors that their donations will effectively be doubled. “A million bucks, to me that’s a lot of money,” Shearin says. “I literally cried when he told me that. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ I couldn’t catch my breath.”
The donor, whose association with Street Life began as a volunteer, thought it had gotten along “quite well in a modest way” but a permanent facility will give the ministry its own kitchen both for cooking and job-training, as well as space for counseling. (Street Life Ministries uses the kitchen at Peninsula Covenant Church.) Initially, the program will be limited to men, and Street Life will be looking for candidates showing signs of wanting to change. The donor likes the ministry’s approach, which is to solve addiction problems and homelessness, not enable and perpetuate them.
Shearin says the Homeless to Healthy program needs at least a 10,000- to 15,000-square-foot building with room for walk-in refrigerators and freezers, classrooms, a corporate office and possibly some living space. Street Life currently dispenses meals—with a sermon—in Redwood City, Menlo Park and Palo Alto.
The program would operate in partnership with charities such as LifeMoves, which is involved in finding housing for low-income residents in San Mateo County and Silicon Valley. Participants will get a caseworker, housing and attend classes to help them conquer addiction and find employment. LifeMoves has agreed to provide space at Redwood City’s Maple Street Shelter for 20 homeless men, Shearin says, who will be free of the distractions and temptations of the street during their year in recovery.
The cost of sustaining one person in the program for a year is $42,750, according to the Street Life website, compared with an $830,000 societal cost over 10 years if that person remains homeless. Addiction is a chronic condition and the key to successful treatment is keeping people engaged in a program, according to Dr. Brian Greenberg, LifeMoves’ vice president of programs and a psychologist. LifeMoves is not a faith-based program and only encourages its clients to get involved in one that’s right for them. But Greenberg says, “People need to have hope that they can get this addiction under control and be able to have a life for themselves, and a faith-based approach is really effective for many people.”
Shearin, who celebrated 16 years of sobriety in July, says it was his experience with the Salvation Army that made the difference. “If they pussyfooted around with me with my recovery, I would never have gotten sober. But because they held my feet to the fire and I had consequences—you did certain things or you were kicked out.” Sixteen years ago, he says, “Most people wrote me off. … Look where I am because I had a support system. I had people at the Salvation Army, at church, that poured into me and they just mentored me. And you know what, I was willing to be mentored.” Keeping addicts in a recovery program and “allowing them to stay loaded on drugs,” he adds, “what are you doing, just wishing that they’re going to get clean?” For more information, go to streetlifeministries.org.