For Marianne LeCompte, helping Fresno’s homeless isn’t just about providing needed food or shelter. It’s about restoring people’s dignity.
The 73-year-old works to this aim as chair of the homeless committee for St. Helen’s Roman Catholic Church in southeast Fresno and as chair of the outreach committee for Wings Fresno, a volunteer organization made up of representatives from churches working to end homelessness in Fresno.
She has led the charge through Wings in helping nearly 200 homeless people over the past year and a half obtain California identification cards – a crucial first step in obtaining housing, and something she says isn’t covered by government programs. The project is a natural fit for the former IRS manager, who knows a thing or two about paperwork. She also helps other Wings volunteers move donated furniture into the homes of former homeless.
What I try to do is just treat everybody with the dignity of a child of God.
Stacy Richardson, 45, was among a group of homeless she helped last week at a DMV office in central Fresno. Richardson says “situation after situation” led to her being on the streets, including domestic violence and drug use. She is appreciative of the help she received paying and applying for an ID.
“You need an ID to do anything. ... It’s everything,” Richardson said. “It’s the key to the city, so to speak.”
Richardson is in the process of earning a certification in drug and alcohol counseling. She wants to help people overcome many of the challenges she has been through, and regain custody of her 10-year-old son.
“When you’re not on the street and you got your ID and you have all this motivation around you, it makes you want to do something different,” she said tearfully. “The misconception (about homeless people) is, you don’t know where people have been before. ... People who could be a better resource to our community just need a chance.”
The catalyst for much of LeCompte’s current work came from attending a summit held by the Bishops’ Homeless Advocacy Committee, created through the Social Justice Ministry of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, which asked attendees to consider how their churches could help Fresno’s homeless. Shortly after, LeCompte formed St. Helen’s homeless committee.
“She has one of the best overviews of the overall picture of homelessness in Fresno. ... She’s very knowledgeable and very caring,” said Jim Nelson, chairperson of the Bishops’ Homeless Advocacy Committee. “She’s a saint as far as I’m concerned.”
It’s not something you can say, ‘If you give us X amount of money, everybody will be housed and it will be great.’ Individuals’ problems are unique and it takes time to build trust.
The St. Helen’s homeless committee focuses on passing out 300 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and nine cases of water to people at 11 Fresno recycling centers every week. Since they started the outreach in the summer of 2013, the group has distributed 20,000 sandwiches and 450 cases of water. They also pass out information about how to get additional help from other groups and agencies.
They primarily work in outlying areas of the city, away from distribution hubs like the Poverello House.
Some of these people are really hungry. We have been asked by people, ‘Can I please have another bag? I haven’t eaten in two days.’
LeCompte prays to be led to people in need. But she says church members don’t preach the Gospel to those they help, unless they are asked. They hope their actions speak for themselves.
Their small gifts had a big impact on Kay Sealey, 68. The disabled woman was given a sandwich and bottled water at a recycling center near her southeast Fresno apartment, where she got $2.50 from bottles and cans to pay back a friend.
“Nothing like this has ever happened to me ever in my life,” Sealey said. “I won a TV once, that was about all the excitement in my life. ... It made me think God was there looking over me and knew I was thirsty.”
I got home and I cried. ... It couldn’t have happened at a better time.
LeCompte hopes the outreach makes people feel “worthwhile and cared about.”
“It isn’t just, ‘Oh, you look like you’re hungry, here’s a sandwich.’ It’s, ‘Hi, how are you?’ It’s about treating people with dignity, and I think that’s every bit as important as the food.”
LeCompte also learned a lot about Fresno’s homeless population through an internship with First Step Outreach, where she served the homeless and mentally ill. After retiring from the IRS, she entered a graduate program in social work.
She says there continues to be many misconceptions about Fresno’s homeless.
“Sometimes, when I hear people say, ‘Oh, they just want to be here,’ I want to say, ‘Why don’t you try it for a night and then see if you really think they want to be in this situation.’
“Some people have given up hope. Some people tell you they want to be that way out of bravado, but I’ve never got to know anybody that really wants to continue living how they are living, and has the mental capacity to evaluate it.
“At the same time, I don’t hand out money on the street. I think a lot of people who panhandle are not necessarily homeless, and a lot of people who are homeless would never panhandle.”
I would hope that the more we learn about people and the more we raise up their spirits, the more we can change, as a community, their living situation.
There is no quick fix to end homelessness, she says, but building relationships with those in need can help a great deal.
“The more you treat people well and the more trust you build, the more people will respond to what’s available. And the more we will learn what we need to have so we can house them. ...
“In the long range, I would hope that the more we learn about people and the more we raise up their spirits, the more we can change, as a community, their living situation.”