(Photo: Breakfast Together Outreach)
SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. – It appeared that Scott "Scooch" Miller was winning his battle over the demons that plagued him as a U.S. military veteran of the Vietnam war, at least in part, thanks to his relationship with a Christian homeless ministry serving in South Orange County, Calif. However, he remained homeless, still struggling with alcoholism, while spending nights sleeping in a field next to a famous surf spot until his death two weeks ago.
At a memorial service given by the ministry last Sunday, Christian leaders at a park in the pristine, primarily affluent community of San Clemente were struggling to wrap their minds around the question of why Scooch died in the bushes at "Trestles," alone one night, apparently from the cold during a night of freezing temperatures.
During a moment of reflection at the service on the life of Scooch, the "ornery" man who began to turn soft after accepting Jesus into his life, some in attendance spoke of feeling like they could have done something to prevent his death and that something more should certainly be done for the homeless in the area – especially now.
"It definitely grieved my heart when I learned he was found dead in a field. I have known him for over five years. I've prayed with him many times and was fortunate enough to baptize him," said Breakfast Together ministry leader Max McGhee. "I think he was really close to finding the hope he needed to get off the streets. He just fell short.
"I think that's sad because so many of these guys are just on the verge of putting it together and sometimes they fall short. The good thing is that because of the outreach ministry he did find true hope in Christ. He received salvation," McGhee said.
Scooch was one of four deaths in the area (3 in Orange County, 1 in No. San Diego County) of homeless people in January during a week-long unusually cold period where temperatures dropped into the twenties overnight. Although he frequented San Clemente, Scooch often slept at the Trestles surf spot, a beach in northern-most San Diego County outside the county line. Although his autopsy report was still pending during the memorial, those attending speculated that it was the freezing or near freezing temperatures that caused his death.
In South Orange County, finding overnight shelter for the homeless has become a growing problem.
"You have volunteers and faith communities and others that are interested in helping the homeless, but at the end of the day, nobody really has any beds to place them into," Jim Palmer, president of the Orange County Rescue Mission (OCRM), told The Christian Post on Tuesday.
"Always the big question is to know if they (the homeless person) would have taken advantage of something. If you did have a shelter bed to send them to would they have actually gone, and of course, we will never know," Palmer said. "But I think that when you are going through that mourning process and thinking what could have been done, if you can take that energy and focus it on solutions and really, for South Orange County that means getting facilities built so there are beds literally that you can refer people to get assistance."
Palmer explained, "Here's the challenge of South Orange County – it's the cost of land and finding a community that would accept a shelter because many communities fall into what they call the 'NIMBY' syndrome of 'not in my back yard.' At that point, you have a need and maybe some resources, but if you can't find a city that would welcome that kind of a facility being built you are sort of out of luck and that's what we find most of the time."
While Palmer sees the solution primarily in housing, McGhee believes the number one solution is found in Christians having a heart to develop relationships with the homeless. He began a ministry more than ten years ago that worked alongside a San Clemente motel whose management at first supported the Sunday breakfast outreach that included meals followed by worship music and a Gospel message in the courtyard.
The Breakfast Together Outreach ministry enlisted the help of many small groups (home Bible studies) from at least four local churches, including Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, to serve the breakfasts, deliver God's word, and build relationships with the homeless, McGhee said.
The ministry went beyond simply serving food and providing worship time. It helped arrange temporary housing as well. Sometimes, the motel became almost like a halfway house. The homeless were also connected to other services, such as medical and education.
"In the prior years, the motel ministry was running so we had dozens and dozens of churchgoers involved in their lives and keeping closer tabs of the conditions that they were experiencing. When it would get cold like it was we would get a collection and get a room for them to get out of the cold," he said.
However, last year, the motel said the ministry could no longer have Sunday services on its property because of the transient people attending. Also, shutting down in the same time period was a small homeless shelter within a local church. In this case, it was city officials who could no longer tolerate the homeless influx.
Steve Hagy, who was a leader of the shelter within the church and who is now on a committee looking to build a homeless shelter in San Clemente, discussed the problem during an interview before the memorial service. "Where do you set the boundaries in these cases? We want grace and love to pierce the darkness of their lives, but we also understand there's a tough love aspect.
"In that environment (of the shelter) we had time to spend with people, time to identify the key characteristics in their lives where maybe there was some brokenness or un-repentance or where they have not moved to a place of forgiveness," Hagy said.
He said he wants to see if a homeless center can be re-established next year in a church setting "to try and bring the love of Jesus into their lives."
For McGhee, coming alongside homeless people as friends is what it is all about. "One of the things Scooch battled with was that he was a Vietnam vet. When we first met him he didn't think God would forgive him because he killed people and he was very bitter when we met him," McGhee said. "Over the last five years he became very soft and much more kind hearted and began to see the light that maybe the glass was half full. Fortunately, he is in a better place."
Shelters and treatment centers are a critical piece to the puzzle of getting help for the homeless and getting them off the street, he said. "But, I've seen instances where we've helped people still on the streets by praying with them and encouraging them and sometimes helping them get jobs. For some it's not critical, but for some that are full blown alcoholics (for example) it's much more critical."
However, the resource most underused is the Christian community itself, McGhee implied.
"If the Christian community was to really rally for the homeless population you would still have some people that would be stubborn and not get off the streets, but all those that really wanted to get off the streets would find the support they needed to get off the streets," he said.
When asked what it might look like if Christians "really rally," McGhee said, "It looks like actually being friends. Christ said himself, 'I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you (John 15:15).'
"Who are we to say that we are unwilling to call someone that's homeless a friend? That's really what's going to make a difference. If they really truly believe that you are their friend they will have much more incentive and a reason to live a productive life," he said.