Everyone agrees that the homeless problem in Visalia is getting worse. But what is Visalia doing about it? The answer is, a lot. The City has passed ordinances to reduce the blight caused by the homeless, has organized the SMART team, and has worked with local organizations, such as the Visalia Rescue Mission, (VRM) to get the homeless off the streets.
“The Rescue Mission is on the leading edge of addressing the ‘free rent camper’ issue otherwise known as homeless. Everyone and anyone should support their efforts for a safer Visalia,” said Bill Huott of the North Visalia Advisory Committee.
The VRM has been part of the fabric of this city for thirty-two years. They serve 500 meals a day and offer 126 beds per night for those without a roof over their head. For the larger community they serve Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas meals to anyone who shows up. But the VRM does more than just give hand outs. According to Jessica Cavale, “We don’t want to enable the homeless. We want to see their lives change and become productive members of society. Our goal is to hold people accountable.” To hold people accountable the VRM offers 50 beds in a recovery and life skills program that reintegrates the homeless back into society.
The Rescue Mission is a Christian-based organization. But anyone can come to the mission to get a free meal or shower. To get a bed for the night, though, one must attend a chapel service from 6:00 – 7:00. “We want to show them the love of Jesus Christ through some of these tangible ways, like offering a meal or a shower,” said Cavale. According to VRM’s Hope Now magazine, “A meal may not seem like a lot, but for the guests that come to the Visalia Rescue Mission, a meal can mean the start to a new life. There are people who come to the VRM for a meal who get plugged into case management, rehab programs, housing options and job opportunities. For them a meal is just the start to life change through Jesus Christ.”
In September the VRM opened up a new community center that they built from the ground up. The upstairs needs to be finished and they are still paying off the downstairs, so the center is a work in progress. But they already have their case managers and counselors, and are conducting classes in the beautifully constructed downstairs. The community center is where VRM runs their Next Steps program, which provides life skills classes and also helps people get their GED, build their resume, and provide work experience in the VRM’s warehouses, garden, or thrift stores.
“Thus far 92 individuals have gone through the Next Steps Program and are working, have rented a place to live, or both,” said Cavale. In the fall, VRM is launching a capital campaign to finish their community center. “That building is changing lives,” Cavale said.
For those not ready for the Next Steps Program the VRM offers a recovery program. This is not your Lindsey Lohan six-week drink-and-dash course. The VRM offers a nine-month residential recovery program where an individual moves into an apartment and starts therapy. Toward the end of their recovery they are expected to do job training, money management, or sign up for literacy classes or get their GED, whichever is needed. This program is free to anyone and the VRM works with the court system and accepts people who might otherwise be incarcerated. Counselors evaluate each applicant to determine a readiness for the program or a willingness to shed addiction.
All those in the Next Steps Program are given the opportunity to use the gym twice a week with a personal trainer as a part of an effort to live healthier lives. Behind the gym is a garden where people can get work experience and from which the VRM uses the produce in their soup kitchen. A long-term goal is to make a kiosk where the VRM can also sell its produce.
How do they pay for all this? Apart from a paid staff, the VRM boasts, according to Cavale, “two hundred of the most awesome volunteers.” Too, a large portion of money comes from its many fundraisers throughout the year. The VRM’s next one is Run for Hope on October 19th. This is a 10k race from Cutler Park along the St. John’s Trail and back. Another big fundraiser is the Chamber of Commerce Christmas Tree Auction, in which the VRM’s Board of Directors donates and decorates a tree.
Partnering with businesses, civic organizations and the city expands what the VRM can offer. Fugazzis supplies the soup kitchen’s meal every Thursday night. The breakfast Rotary donated the fence around the men’s recovery building, which made it a safer place to live and safer for the staff.
VRM also has a private donor base of businesses and individuals who make cash donations.
Everyone can get involved with donating to the Mission by shopping at its thrift stores, Rescued Treasures on Mooney and Simply Chic Boutique on Main Street. Donations of clothing, appliances, furniture or electronics can be made at the Mission. “We try to utilize everything that people graciously give to us. We want to be good stewards of everything we receive,” said Ms. Cavale. “Even items that don’t make it to the thrift stores are sold to a recycler.”
Cavale said their vision for the future is to improve the women’s and children’s facility and build them their own campus. As she drove me around its many facilities, Cavale noticed some men lying on the grass in front of their former chapel. “I’m going to call somebody, “ she said. “We don’t want them to lounge. We want people to change their lives.”