When Bill Nelson was a college student in Long Beach during the late '70s, he decided to help his mother work with those experiencing homelessness one weekend in the Arbor Villa area nearby.
Nelson spent a lot of time "just listening" to his new acquaintances, he said. After getting to know them, he and his mother were able to connect them to resources designed to assist them in finding housing jobs and even educational opportunities. But only if they wanted to accept the help.
"As I learned about who they were, I found that they once were engineers, mechanics, accountants and others with amazing degrees," Nelson said. "But one business mistake caused them to just hit hard times. And I noticed something else — there were not enough people there to help that weekend."
Forty years later, Nelson is a pastor at Fresh Beginnings Ministry in Costa Mesa and leads classes to teach others how to help those experiencing homelessness. He has taught more than 80 people how to become mentors.
His program "Life Support Mentor Training" is supported by Fresh Beginnings Ministries and is open to the community.
Since that first weekend he helped his mother in Arbor Villa, Nelson has devoted his time to working in rescue missions and churches. He kept handwritten notes of the techniques that he found the most effective.
The notes were for the thesis he was writing while earning his master's degree in pastoral care and strategic leadership at Hope International University in Fullerton. He later assembled that thesis into a book on understanding homelessness and how to offer the appropriate help and had it published.
Today, students use that book for their curriculum during his mentor training program.
After his first class took off in Huntington Beach last year, one of his students, a consultant from Costa Mesa, suggested a class to run in Costa Mesa. Nelson liked the idea.
"I gave my booklet to the city's higher-ups, then they looked through the material and checked our status as a nonprofit," Nelson said. "Once they understood the concept and that it was all about people trying to understand the homeless individually, they were all in."
In February, he began to teach two classes that met once a month in the Costa Mesa Neighborhood Center.
In nine months, his students graduated from the program.
"We've learned so many things the past nine months," said Costa Mesa resident Syndy Resler, one of Nelson's graduating students. "I learned how to listen with my eyes. Sometimes, people will tell you one thing to get what they want, but you can see a different story."
While rollerblading in Newport Beach three years ago, Resler met a homeless man.
"I thought maybe he'd like some help," she said. "I brought him clothes, took him to church and also a sober home. But he dropped out of [the home] after four days. I had to realize he just didn't want help."
With those Resler encounters now, she asks whether or not they are hungry, do they have any addictions, do they have a source of income and are they willing to work for an income?
"There are people who want help and are willing to get help," Nelson said. "Our job is to find them. We never rescue them, but instead, we seek to empower them."
In the nine months students spend in the program, they can seek to help someone and, when he or she is ready, talk to the client about possibly finding the services most appropriate for their needs. Female mentors may only connect with female clients and vice versa.
During the program, students learn to never give money to those they encounter and how to set other boundaries.
"There are times when you have to say, 'No,'" Nelson said. "Maybe you have a meeting set up for them with social services and they don't show up or they keep asking you for money. Then you just have to say 'No' permanently."
While the students mainly seek a better understanding of homelessness, some also learn how to better help struggling families and senior citizens in need of assistance.
In February 2016, Nelson will have one class in Huntington Beach and two classes in Costa Mesa that will meet twice a month for the next mentor training program.