Well-Heeled Befriend Down-at-Heels

Times Staff Writer

In the chill night breeze, about 30 homeless men, draped in outsized jackets and scarfs, clustered around a van at a dark Santa Ana street corner.

The stench from cheap booze and the stale rust smell of nearby railroad tracks cut through the darkness, as the homeless men and a few quick-talking, street-wise women among them stepped up to receive sack lunches and a couple of pairs of clean white socks.

Among the five people offering the quick meal and warm clothing was Denise Banner, who smiled shyly and gazed directly into the eyes of each street person she greeted, her expensive golden earrings glinting in the moonlight.

Only a few hours earlier, Banner had been promoted to executive vice president of a savings and loan at Newport Beach's Newport Center, a place just a short distance--but countless cultures--away from the seedy area of downtown Santa Ana.

Less than a year ago, Banner could not have even imagined standing on that dark street corner helping the homeless. But that was before she joined SPIN (Street People In Need), a group of 90 parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Newport Beach, who twice a week--rain or shine--pack food and clothing to distribute it among the homeless.

"This is a reminder that it can happen to any of us. All it takes is two or three bad breaks," Banner said.

These are not your traditional do-gooders, but honest-to-goodness members of Orange County's economic elite. These 90 parishioners are not the sort one would expect to habitually drive by shadowy street corners, much less stop to talk to--or assist--street people.

Yet, together, they have found a way to make a difference, to help the poor.

Samuel W.H. Boyce, an advertising executive and self-appointed leader of SPIN, said the SPIN project is not just to serve the homeless but also to drive home to the many upscale, gentrified folks within his parish what life is really like for the poor.

"This is a workshop in poverty. We are learning about the conditions on the street," Boyce said.

But members of SPIN can help street people, not just because they can afford to care consciously, but also because they can contribute their dollars, said Scott Mather, himself a crusader for the homeless who helped organize SPIN after meeting Boyce more than a year ago.

"Money is available to these people and that helps their efforts greatly," said Mather, an independent insurance agent who lives in Costa Mesa.

SPIN is one of about 10 private charitable groups that frequently try to provide food and clothing for the people living on Orange County streets, according to Mather. There also are about a dozen shelters that provide temporary living quarters for about 500 people nightly, but social service organizations estimate that there about 6,000 homeless in Orange County.

15,000 Meals

Since SPIN was first organized last March, the group has served an estimated 15,000 meals, mostly to a core group of about 500 homeless people. Although SPIN members vary their route on occasion, they usually serve their twice weekly meals outside the Salvation Army and the Orange County Rescue Mission, both in Santa Ana, and Hart Park in Orange.

When the project began, only Boyce and three other people pledged to join. But those initial members got their church hierarchy to provide seed money to begin the twice-weekly dispersal of food and clothing. One collection at Easter Mass last year netted $3,500. Volunteers then collected another couple of thousand dollars and the street mission was launched.

Since then, SPIN has grown to include about 90 volunteers--lawyers, teachers, business people are among them. In that time, they have raised another $17,000 for the mission, including $10,000 taken in at a special church collection at Thanksgiving.

Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, about a dozen or so of the volunteers gather in the church hall to prepare food bags. For precisely the cost of $1.02, Boyce said, the group can pack a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a cup cake and juice into the lunch sack.

Old Delivery Bus

After 200 bags or so are prepared, about eight or 10 of the volunteers jump back into their Mercedes Benzes and Jaguars and head home. Five others crowd into a tattered Volkswagen bus that Boyce bought last year, and drive to Santa Ana and Garden Grove to disperse the food and clothing.

For Banner, who tries to go out into the streets once a week, her involvement in SPIN has ignited a personal transformation that she said has not only heightened her awareness of the poor's problems, but has given her the confidence to feel comfortable around the homeless.

When Banner joined SPIN about five months ago, it was at a time when the 35-year-old woman felt a need to help others. She was getting over the breakup of a personal relationship and several parishioners had provided her emotional support during her ordeal.

"I wanted to give to people what others had given to me. Once I felt confident in how I was and who I was, I wanted to give something back. And this is what I chose to get involved with," she said.

Although her commitment was genuine, Banner admitted she was uncomfortable the first few times she went into the streets with other SPIN volunteers.

"I was kind of afraid at first. I wouldn't look at them when I handed out the bag. I wouldn't look them in the eye and I would not talk to them," she said. "Now, I make sure to look at them and I am not afraid to talk to them."

Banner, who is learning Spanish, also tries out a few phrases on the Latinos on the street.

One man, grateful for the offering, sang out after Banner had handed him the food bag and another volunteer had dispensed a pair of cotton socks on a recent evening: "Thank you, Thank you. I don't know how you do it, but thank you so much."

Was Overwhelmed

Later, as the volunteers headed back to Newport Beach and the sanctum of their well-kept homes after delivering about 200 bags of food at three locations, Banner said the appreciation showed by the street people overwhelmed her.

"I'll always remember this one lady I helped. She was just so grateful and she kept thanking me over and over again. I was really touched by that," Banner said.

Boyce's story varies from Banner's, but the personal reward is the same. Boyce, 59, moved to Newport Beach about five years ago and opened his own advertising agency. He does well at it, judging from the fully equipped silver Mercedes 380 SE he drives.

A cheerful man who prods his SPIN volunteers with a continuous barrage of silly insults and other light banter, Boyce said he decided to commit himself to helping the homeless after discussions in his Bible study class about how the street people are treated by the authorities.

Now, that SPIN has spent almost a year delivering food and clothing to the homeless, Boyce is anxious to expand and provide other services. The group soon plans to begin distributing clothing on Sunday afternoons, in addition to the Tuesday and Thursday night missionary visits to Orange County's inner city streets.

Boyce also said another SPIN goal is to establish a center where the homeless could wash up before job hunting, a place where they also could have access to telephones to place and receive calls from potential employers and where they could even collect their mail.

Address Problem

One big stumbling block for transients serious about obtaining employment, say experts who work with those in need, is that they have no permanent address and it is difficult for them to fill out job applications because they cannot provide such information required by potential employers.

Also, Boyce said, the group aims to publish a small directory listing all the free programs the county makes available to the destitute. They expect to hand it out during their twice weekly missions, he said.

And in an effort to spread their commitment to the homeless, Boyce said that SPIN wants to encourage other churches to develop similar programs. He is even willing to loan out SPIN's brown bus to other groups on nights that it sits idle in the church's back parking lot.

"We'll go anywhere at anytime and help anyone get started," he said. "We'll tell them how we did it and we'll show them everything."

One of the priests at Our Lady Queen of Angels, Bill McLaughlin, said he is proud that some of his parishioners are "living out their faith" by responding to the "immediate needs of people." McLaughlin also agreed that the efforts of SPIN have helped them grow spiritually.

Two-Way Street

"I don't know who has benefited the most, the people who go out and help, or the people being helped," McLaughlin said.

Mather, who accompanies SPIN volunteers on occasion, said these well-heeled Newport Beach residents have taken to the task and proven that they can make a difference.

"The people on the street are learning to trust them, and the people in SPIN are being exposed to what's out here on the street. What they are doing serves a dual purpose," Mather said. "It might be a pipe dream, but at least people are trying to come up with creative ways to deal with the problems (of the homeless)."

And the success of this group is especially important, Mather said, because most of these people had never before gotten directly involved in any anti-poverty move. By reaping personal rewards for the effort, he added, these people are encouraging others to get involved.

"And it keeps people fed and that is great task and it does make a noticeable difference," Mather said.

Jean Forbath, a member of the county's Human Relations Commission, said the success of SPIN and other such groups should encourage more community involvement. However, she tempered her remarks.

'Not Solving the Problem'

"I think it's great that SPIN is doing this. But their efforts are not solving the problem of homelessness," she said, adding that only long-range, sweeping reforms of social service programs will help cure the overall dilemmma.

Nonetheless, Boyce said he senses the awareness his volunteers have picked up on the street and that attitude has "evoked a response from all sorts of people--and that's why this seems to be working."

Compassion, too, seems to have grown steadily in Boyce and the other SPIN volunteers.

"I always thought of myself as being generous. But it was always just writing checks," he said. "With this, it's a two-way street. The people on the street now have people who come out to them. We care about them and are willing to help them.

"In turn, we get a great feeling of being needed."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World