It is hard not to notice the spike in homelessness locally, despite years of declining numbers.
Public concern is growing. Agencies are scrambling. Yet another new effort is underway to find out why so many of the most vulnerable in our midst are falling through the cracks.
It makes no matter. Their reasons for being there are innumerable.
But as the public behavior of some becomes more brazen, there is the danger of “compassion fatigue” setting in with the community.
“The homeless need us,” said longtime St. Vincent de Paul Homeless Center volunteer Nancy Terrio, who years ago befriended a visitor to the center who expressed his appreciation through gifts of artistic drawings. When he landed in jail, it was Terrio who provided a helping hand.
“Although the people we serve come in and out of our lives, the mark they leave on our hearts is forever,” she added.
Like Terrio, my own involvement with St. Vincent de Paul over the years has become personal. Some of the visitors’ faces belie a heart-wrenching past. More than just a statistic, this is someone’s aunt, neighbor, son or daughter who, somewhere along the way, veered off life’s path into one dead end after another.
They are homeless. But their plight is not hopeless.
That is the spirit that drives the volunteers at St. Vincent de Paul, an east Bakersfield day-only hub for the needy and downtrodden, dependent on the mercy of the community’s donations as it receives no federal funding.
“The center population that we serve has increased, and with this, our operational costs have increased dramatically,” said volunteer Deborah Leary, who oversees the annual fall barbecue fundraiser.
Today, an estimated 400 homeless men, women and children receive two hot meals a day at the center and have access to restrooms, showers, basic social and mail services in a peaceful, secure, parklike environment. It is a welcome respite from chaotic days on the streets and alleyways. The money generated by the barbecue helps keep the doors open.
“I am privileged to hear the gratitude in our clients’ voices as they go through the food line,” said Helen Haller, who serves meals at the center twice a week. “Many often say they don’t know what they would do if we weren’t here.”
In just four years since volunteers under Leary and master griller Gary Icardo’s direction cooked up the idea to take the highly successful barbecue fundraising model and use it to generate much-needed income for the facility, it has become one of the biggest events of the season in Bakersfield. Part of its attraction may be its lack of pretense. The $30 ticket price is the cheapest in town.
“It has kept us afloat and allowed us to provide one-on-one help to the homeless who come here,” said Director Joanne Border. “We have no real source of income, yet we manage to keep going.”
With the number of weekly visitors to the center rising, the “steaks” are high for this annual event. Every one of us has the power to do something, to effect change in some way, big or small, to help the needy. Consider buying a barbecue ticket. It may well be the best and most important $30 you spend all year. ￼
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lisa Kimble.