People with a passion often have an “Ah-ha” moment that ignites a spark somewhere deep in their soul. For Greg Fellers, a Seal Beach resident and retired veterinarian, it came during a meeting about two years ago with then-Police Chief Joe Stilinovitch.
Residents were meeting with the chief and asking questions about law enforcement and issues in our beach community. Fellers, who moved here after retiring from Loomis, in Northern California, heard some comments he found disturbing.
“When the subject of the homeless came up, there were some people saying, ‘We want them gone.’ And those same people expected the Police Department to do it,” Fellers said. The chief explained to those present that the homeless issue wasn’t a police problem. Instead, he said, it is a community and society problem.
Those comments at a public meeting caused a stir in Fellers. “I wanted to find out what was going on.” He started with four churches in Old Town. He learned what his church, First Methodist, was doing and began going church-to-church, asking what services they offered to the homeless. After talking to people at St. Anne, Grace Community and the Center for Spiritual Living, Fellers gained some valuable insight into what was available to the homeless in our community.
From there, Fellers found himself heading an informal coalition to work on homelessness in our town.
A coalition was born
“As I started talking to people in the community, I learned things. I found out that Seal Beach had Homeless Liaison Officers – Mike Pistilli and Brian Gray,” Fellers said
Working with the police, along with the churches, Fellers was learning not only what the homeless need, but what was available. Many of the churches were already giving out fast food gift cards and toiletries. The police officers told Fellers that backpacks would be helpful, perhaps with toiletries and meal cards inside.
The citizen-founded Police Foundation stepped up and offered some money to buy the backpacks from its coffers. Now the officers have four backpacks with clothing and other essentials inside. Three are for men (small, medium and large) and one is for women.
Then LOTE (Ladies of the Night) heard what was happening and donated $200 to the Police Foundation to be used specifically for the homeless effort. Next the Lions Club came onboard, and suddenly Fellers’ project was a coalition of the four churches, police, LOTE, Lions Club and the Police Foundation.
“I was so encouraged to find there is a big group of people out there to help solve the problem,” Fellers said. He also learned that most cities in Orange County now have Homeless Liaison Officers and those officers have formed their own coalition.
No one would argue that efforts to help the homeless is an important endeavor. But what about the real problem or deeper issue? Can it be solved?
“Solving homelessness is a one-on-one proposition,” Fellers said. He has learned that for every person who is homeless, there are different reasons for their plight.
“The answer is not giving money to the homeless. Maybe people should do a little adjustment in their minds about being willing to help and taking the time to help,” he added.
And Fellers does not want any credit for what he has accomplished. “I didn’t set out to ‘do’ anything – I just wanted to learn. It’s just kind of morphed into this loose coalition.”
City Council member gets involved
Newly-elected Councilmember Tom Moore, who represents College Park West, has called a meeting on the homeless issue for city leaders to be held the last Wednesday in July.
“Let’s see where we are currently and what can be done. It’s a very complex issue,” Moore said. He said it was a big issue for his constituents because of all the homeless encampments along the river. Moore is hoping that after city leaders meet something can be done to involve the Seal Beach community at large. He is optimistic about the outcome.
“It is a subject that is tricky to deal with but worth a discussion,” Moore added.
Seal Beach has been proactive
Seal Beach Police Sgt. Mike Henderson was our first Homeless Liaison Officer, roughly five years ago. “After the Kelly Thomas incident there was a lot of focus on the police,” he said.
Henderson found out that Long Beach had an officer tasked with the homeless issue, so he began working with him and they started a working group to get ideas and case studies to better understand the issue.
“We needed to arrive at what would be best practices,” Henderson said. He added that the current Homeless Liaison Officers, Gray and Pistilli, are like social workers. “The role of a homeless liaison is to get to know the people and build trust,” Henderson said. “Those care packages help build trust and we try to get people to help themselves. We knit together a lot of resources.”
While the whole issue may be discouraging, there are success stories too.
There was a homeless man named Bobby who was visible in Seal Beach for about 10 years, and he was known to most of the churches because they had helped him over the years.
One day Bobby asked to meet with the pastor of the First Methodist Church, Rev. Tia Wildermuth. The minister knew to call the police, and reached out to Officer Mike Pistilli. They found out Bobby had a son who lived in West Virginia, but he had lost contact with him. Officer Pistilli was able to find Bobby’s son and found he was open to having his father live with him.
The Police Foundation paid for a bus ticket, gave Bobby a backpack and put him on the bus. Officer Pistilli followed up later with the son to make sure everything had gone as planned. It had. Bobby made it to West Virginia and was living with his son and was OK. Those are the stories we seldom hear about.
Anyone wanting to get involved with Fellers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.