Jeff Jardine

For some, helping Modesto’s homeless means getting hands dirty

Brad Lehman helps Carl Wolden pick out shoes during Lehman’s shoe giveaway through his nonprofit Soles Renewed at Graceada Park in Modesto on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016.
Brad Lehman helps Carl Wolden pick out shoes during Lehman’s shoe giveaway through his nonprofit Soles Renewed at Graceada Park in Modesto on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016.

Thursday, Father Greg Boyle told three separate Stanislaus County audiences about his revered Homeboy Industries ministry in Los Angeles.

Homeboy succeeds in giving gang members a way out of gangs through honest employment at any one of the nonprofit’s businesses but more so by giving them the hope they never had and a connection with people who don’t judge them. They just support them spiritually, treat them as equals and with dignity.

This is important to folks in Stanislaus County who are trying to tackle the multitude of social ills facing our communities, including homelessness and gang crimes. The county-driven Focus on Prevention initiative is aimed at addressing and diminishing them. Boyle’s talk, as did the meeting on homelessness last fall, drew a cross section of people from government, business, law enforcement, faith-based groups, nonprofits and social work agencies.

They left those meetings fed, informed, inspired and, I suspect, pleased that they attended. The vast majority returned those nights to their families in warm houses and cozy beds, with plenty of food on the table, a big-screen TV and all the conveniences of home while the people they discussed remained out on the street, in shelters, in some cases hungry.

Boyle commanded their attention for the same reason the fall Focus panel of homeless, ex-homeless and those credited with helping them out of the darkest of places yanked heartstrings: They leave their comfort zones. They get their hands dirty helping those who don’t have what they have in life. They don’t wait for long-term programs to take effect. They act now because it is who they are. This goes beyond the institutions of the Modesto Gospel Mission, the Salvation Army and other nonprofits that provide invaluable services.

When the forecast called for temperatures to dip into the upper 20s in December, Modesto’s Leng Power and her friends at the Modesto Peace/Life Center rounded up coats and blankets. They went out to parks and other places where unsheltered homeless people hang out and distributed the warmth, leaving their own families and freezing their own backsides off for several hours when they could have stayed toasty at home.

Power attended Boyle’s talk and sat across the table from Jacob Berlin who, at 13, was the youngest person in the room. A student at Glick Middle School in Empire, Berlin spent the day in San Francisco with his family two years ago. Heading down into a BART station, they walked past and ignored a homeless man who said, “You didn’t have to give me anything, but you could have said ‘hello,’ ” his mom, Christie Berlin, told me.

It upset Jacob, who decided no one should be so invisible. When they got home to Modesto, he asked his mom if he could take food to the homeless here. That turned into bags including food, toiletries, Bibles, snacks and more. He created a Facebook page titled Project SGL (Show God’s Love). Jacob goes out whenever possible to talk with homeless folks, recording their names on his Powerbook and asking what they’d like people to pray for in their lives. At first, he’d read the list of names and pray for each person.

“Now the list has gotten so big that he prays for everyone in the book all at once,” mom Christie said.

On Christmas Eve, he donned a Santa hat and made his rounds just making sure the street folks knew someone cared. Another time, he said, he gave a bag of snacks to a woman who handed him a piece of paper with a hand drawing.

“It said, ‘Love is kind, God is good, and happiness is a choice,’ ” Jacob said. “That was really cool.”

Brad Lehman, meanwhile, found his call to care two months ago, when he and a co-worker at Never Boring Design went outside on a break at their office near College and Needham avenues in Modesto. They saw a shoeless man walking down the street past the building that day in the rain. They knew they had to do something.

“Most of my life, I’d been selfish,” Lehman said. “I didn’t do anything unless I got something in return.”

A divorce caused him to reassess his priorities in life.

“I needed to heal, and the only way to heal was to turn to God,” he said. He went home and cleaned out his closet.

“I had seven pair of shoes and that guy had none,” Lehman said. He put four pair into his car and then began asking friends to donate shoes. He took them to Graceada Park to distribute them, bringing socks and a pizza along as well.

“I had 12 pairs,” he said. “I walked up to a bunch of (homeless). There were 12 people there. I had their exact sizes. I had one pair of women’s shoes and there was one woman there and they fit her. It was a miracle. We’re going to keep it going. I’ve never felt better than that.”

He and his friends created “Soles Renewed,” with a slogan of “Never walk in defeat.” They are hoping to create a nonprofit under the umbrella of the Modesto Gospel Mission.

Indeed, they are getting their hands dirty covering the feet of the homeless.

And finally, among those who attended the Focus meeting last October, Debra Perry of Modesto battled homeless people traipsing through her north-central Modesto neighborhood for a decade. One day, while out walking, she came across a man who she’d previously tried to ignore.

“I gave him a placating good morning,” she said. Then, something hit her. “God gripped me. I asked (the man), ‘Do you need anything?’ He looked at me like, ‘After 10 years of walking by me?’ 

He told her he’d like a cup of coffee and needed a sweatshirt. It began an acquaintance that led this man, his sister and brother to literally become part of her family. With their help, the man and his sister have now been clean and sober for a few years.

So yes, many folks found the talk by Father Boyle most inspiring, just as they did the panelists during the homelessness session in October. Packed rooms, captive audiences, most of whom left feeling better for the experience.

To be inspired by those who reach out on a daily basis here and now, some need only to look across the table.