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Tuesday, February 19 , 2019, 10:35 pm | Fair 41º


St. Brigid’s Homeless Ministry Feeds Needs — and Hungry Stomachs, Too

An Isla Vista program run by St. Athanasius Orthodox Church takes small steps to make a big difference

Tucked away in the heart of Isla Vista behind St. Athanasius Orthodox Church sit two tiny trailers that make up St. Brigid Fellowship, the church’s homeless outreach program.

The ministry has become a home for those without one, and for people like Linda Miller, who lives in her van and has been visiting the center off and on for the past three years, starting her day at the ministry is a high point. She says she’s often been the subject of police intimidation because she lives in her van, but when St. Brigid’s staff greets her in the morning when she stops by for breakfast, “it’s enough to change your whole day,” she said.

“The difference is phenomenal,” she said. “They treat people like people.”

Named for the Irish 5th-century saint remembered for her compassion toward the poor, St. Brigid’s reaches out to dozens of homeless individuals from Isla Vista.

“Our No. 1 goal is to provide a place of peace and respite,” said Jill Wallerstedt, who coordinates daily operations at the ministry, 970 Embarcadero Del Mar.

Wallertstedt has lived in I.V. since 1977 and knows just how crowded the seaside community has become.

“There’s probably 10 guys I could house tomorrow, who have the income and the ability to be housed, if there were places to put them in,” she said. “There’s just no housing in Isla Vista.”

Even if housing is difficult, if not impossible, to find for the people St. Brigid’s targets, the church provides meals and serves breakfast every weekday from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., and dinner on Monday nights. Several computers and phones give the homeless a place to search for work or contact family, and clothing donations are distributed when available.

Father Jon-Stephen Hedges is a friendly, welcoming presence at the weekly dinners St. Brigid Fellowship hosts for its homeless outreach program in Isla Vista.
Father Jon-Stephen Hedges is a friendly, welcoming presence at the weekly dinners St. Brigid Fellowship hosts for its homeless outreach program in Isla Vista. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

“Because of the economic times, there’s very little comfort at this level, because you want to know where your meal is coming from and where you’re going to sleep,” Miller said. Often, just having a place to pick up mail or an open computer to check email means a lot, she says. “This is the model to follow.”

Wallerstedt acknowledges the great diversity of reasons people become homeless.

“We don’t have a program where we say everyone has to end up housed,” she said. “We don’t know what people want for themselves.”

Even though the program is funded by the church and many of the ministry’s staff are parishioners, Wallerstedt says there are no strings attached to anyone who seeks help from St. Brigid’s. “We will pray before dinner, but we don’t say you have to come and sit in church for half an hour,” she said.

Wallerstedt said churches can contribute much to help solve the problem of homelessness, and that the St. Brigid’s model is something other congregations could easily follow.

“I think it takes everybody to solve the problem,” she said. “There’s a definite role for faith-based organizations, and we can’t solve the problem ourselves.”

St. Brigid's ministry to the homeless is a piece of cake for Anastasia Song, left, and Jill Wallerstedt, who serve up dessert while they celebrate March birthdays at the program's weekly dinner.
St. Brigid’s ministry to the homeless is a piece of cake for Anastasia Song, left, and Jill Wallerstedt, who serve up dessert while they celebrate March birthdays at the program’s weekly dinner. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Because St. Brigid’s is unable to provide things like a place to shower or sleep, staff often refers people out to other organizations.

A bigger facility is the current greatest need at St. Brigid’s, Wallerstedt says, adding that new ideas are coming to fruition where they are. Several community and church volunteers have come forward, expressing a desire to teach classes in topics like woodworking and art. Wallerstedt says the ministry is trying to gather enough tools for a “tool library” to supplement its woodworking class.

Jennifer Ferraez is a clinical social worker for Santa Barbara County who comes by the ministry once a week for mental health checkups. Ferraez says she works with people from Isla Vista to Carpinteria, and called St. Brigid’s “a microcosm of what I aspire to see happening downtown.”

As people finish dinner, Ferraez calls out several people who have birthdays later in the week, and a large cake with candles is brought out. “We work on little ways like that of making people a little more connected to their identity as human beings,” she said.

“St. Brigid’s believes in working next to the people on the streets, talking with them, collaborating with them, eating with them, making them a part of a community, rather than standing over, looking down at them,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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