Check out this inspirational story of a local “Making it Happen” in California’s Conejo Valley.
By Mira Reverente
The first time we visited, it was New Year’s Eve. The decor was festive and the food was abundant. At least 50 guests were expected to attend the holiday gathering.
This could have been anybody’s home; however, it was a homeless shelter at Westminster Presbyterian Church (WPC) in Westlake Village. “We serve meals year-round, not just around the holidays, but the shelter is only open in the winter time,” said CJ Khougaz, volunteer coordinator for the meal and shelter program at WPC.
Every Wednesday evening, volunteer teams of anywhere from four to 14 people help set up, cook, serve and clean up for the homeless, lovingly referred to as “guests” by the volunteers.
Katie Menees has been helping out for the past 12 years and leads Team 1, the group that’s in charge of the first Wednesday of the month. “It’s one of those things where you get in and it’s hard to get out,” said the Westlake resident and WPC church-goer. Menees was occupied all evening, ensuring that the tables were set up, the food was hot, the volunteers were wearing gloves and all set to serve at 6:30 p.m on the dot.
From December 1 to March 31, WPC is also set up as a shelter, along with six other churches in the area. “We count how many guests have checked in, then we lay out the cots and beddings according to that number,” said Barbara Comilang, a new volunteer, as she went back and forth making sure there were enough cots in both the male and female areas.
WPC is the only shelter in the Conejo Valley that has shower facilities on-site, according to Khougaz. So sometimes, the number of guests they have is higher than the other shelters.
Almost always, men outnumber the women, about five to one, as was the case that evening. Family members, even married couples, must sleep in the designated sections for each gender.
Sometimes, there are children too. “We don’t get as many children and teens because the staff at Lutheran Social Services (LSS) works hard to keep them off the streets right away,” said Khougaz. “They get priority in transitional housing and other emergency assistance programs.”
LSS, which has an office in Thousand Oaks, coordinates the year-round Conejo Valley meal program and the winter shelter program. Brian Clohessy, is the only paid employee of LSS on-site.
While his official title is program manager, he says he has been called many names and titles–guardian angel, safety officer, supervisor, guard, facilitator and even “bouncer.” Tall and imposing at 6’3”, Clohessy keeps the peace among the guests and ensures that both volunteers and guests are safe. Inspecting backpacks, confiscating weapons and storing prescription drugs are part of his mile-long job description.“I make sure everyone behaves,” said Clohessy. And if they don’t? “The police have been called to the shelter a number of times for a variety of reasons,” he said.
Altercations among guests, both verbal and physical, are common. Fractures and broken ribs are typical but not weekly occurrences. “I hate to ban or turn people away, but they know it is a consequence of bad behavior,” said Clohessy, who works at all seven winter shelters, seven nights a week.
Tricia D. is just grateful there is a warm and safe place for her to stay during the winter months that she can’t imagine not being on her best behavior. The 65-year-old former real estate broker has been coming to the shelter for almost a year now, a result of one misfortune after another. “My daughter is disabled. And I lost everything during the recession,” she said. “I was also in a bad car accident, my parents died and then I had thyroid cancer.” Tricia acknowledges she also made some poor choices but is eager to get back on her feet and take care of her adult daughter.
Like Tricia, Ronna Channing, 54, is also recovering from cancer and some major life changes like divorce and losing her home to a fire. “I am thankful for places like this where I feel safe,” she said.
Come springtime, some of them will go back to sleeping in their cars, in park benches or wherever the city will allow them. Mark Augspurger will be one of them.The former Thousand Oaks resident was doing construction and caretaker work until the jobs dried up and a slew of medical issues started bothering him. “I’ll keep looking but I’m not as healthy as I used to be,” he said.
There is hope, Clohessy said. He recalls former guests who have paid them a visit after their situations have improved–a hairdresser, a stockbroker, among others. Some give back and volunteer, or some just drop by to thank him and the volunteers.
In the meantime, it’s one day at a time for the guests as they get ready for that evening’s treat–a movie in the church hall. In the morning, they will be served a hot breakfast and sent off with packed lunches to an unknown future.
Find more inspirational stories from the Conejo Valley here. If you know of anyone or an organization that’s making a difference in people’s lives and would be great to profile for “Making It Happen” in California, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.