Fresh Start For Homeless

Flooded with picturesque suburban neighborhoods, tidy shopping plazas and Lamborghinis speeding down Jamboree, Irvine seems the typical piece of Orange County that is world famous for its wealth and glamour.

In general, homeless people seem to be scarce in Irvine, especially compared to areas in Santa Ana. However, another type of homeless largely shies away from the common spotlight. These people are families who have lived in their own homes recently, but have lost their jobs or fallen into financial hardship. They are not usually walking the streets, and for the most part are not the stereotypical image of a homeless person.

This is where Families Forward, a southern Orange County independent non-profit that, according to their mission statement, “assists families in financial crisis to achieve and maintain self-sufficiency,” lends a helping hand. Founded in 1984 by a group of dedicated community members in collaboration with the City of Irvine and the Irvine Company, the group originally wanted to combat future hard times in the economy.

Located on Irvine Boulevard off the Bake exit on I-405, the center blends in with the other industrial offices and factories around the area. However, the modest office boasts an expansive set of programs that include transitional homes, homeless prevention, a food pantry, career coaching, applications assistance, community programs, and Woman, Infants, and Children (WIC) representatives. Other unique programs such as back-to-school programs, holiday programs, and workshops on how to dine on a budget are carried out by Families Forward as well.

“All of the agencies in the area differ from what we offer, and we all fill a different niche of service,” Development and Communications manager Lisa Simone said. “For example, we are not an immediate shelter for emergency situations.”

Instead, one of the main services that Families Forward has is its transitional homes. Spread throughout the Irvine community are 26 homes, serving the homeless from the I-55 south all the way down to San Clemente. A 14th community with a special series of houses especially for Families Forward was recently completed last spring. The organization served 44 families in the last calendar year, including more than 80 children. 90 percent of families graduate the program having achieved self-sufficiency.

“We have accountability. All of our transition families go through weekly group counseling. The families are put on a budget, they get on a plan, and they transition out,” Simone said. “It’s a pretty fast program. They can stay up to two years but most people stay around 12 months or so.”

No one else in the community knows that these houses are different than any other house in the neighborhood. The condos and townhouses are not designated in any way. The kids go to school with everyone else in the neighborhood.

“Confidentiality is huge with Families Forward, so you won’t know who our clients are, where they’re living or where those townhouses are,” Simone said. “We want them to have as normal a life as possible, be back in the community, be participating in the community. Just because they come here doesn’t make it where they have a mark against them.”

According to Simone, the three biggest reasons families come to them are job loss, medical bills or abandonment or divorce. Sometimes, more than one of those things occur. The key, however, is that the program is only for families — there has to be kids under 18 in the household. Families Forward is not for single or an older generation person.

“Sometimes they are single parents, and other times they are families where both the husband and the wife have lost their jobs,” Simone said. “Sometimes a husband runs up a lot of debt and couldn’t handle it anymore and left, leaving the homemaker with two or three kids, and she hasn’t been in the job market for 10 years.”

The main motive at Families Forward is the care of the children, the rising youth.

“We are about helping the kids because they don’t ask to be in that situation. We don’t want that situation to repeat itself, so if you can get the families healthy and back on their feet, the likelihood of the kids becoming productive citizens and giving back to the community is that much greater,” Simone said.

Another important part of operations at Families Forward is the food pantry that is attached to the main office. They serve over 100 families a week, with 50 supported families receiving food in addition to the transitional homes. Other homeless people get a standard eight bags of food per week. “Regular” homeless persons just coming up for food can only use the pantry six times a year. Everything is by appointment. Remarkably, 40 percent of the clients at the food pantry are from Irvine.

“We get fresh bread from Costco and Panera, but also home-grown fruit from people’s orchard or gardens. We rotate different food drives also at hospitals and schools and other places,” Simone said. “Then there is the twice a year city wide food drive.”

Over 200 volunteers are the driving force behind Families Forward. The food pantry is completely run by volunteers, as is the front desk. Volunteers are needed as much as ever, with the pantry serving 3,500 people in 2008, a 46 percent increase from the year before

“We are a very lean staff, as 83 percent of the dollars coming in go right back out to the families,” Simone said. “Our overhead as far as the staff goes is very low. The counselors are full time, I’m full time, and a couple people are part-time, but most of the people you see around here are volunteers.”

For more information on volunteering, Families Forward can be reached at (949) 552-2727, or by email at info@families-forward.org. In a November letter to the editor to the OC Register, Wakeham declared that there has been a 75 percent boost in families attending every single one of the programs at Families Forward. Now, Wakeham says, is a golden chance to help the people affected by foreclosure, unemployment and the financial crisis due to the recession. Make the story of our community helping those in need as big of a story as those that need our help.