As congregations struggle with how to manage unused space in their large buildings, Mount Olive Lutheran in Santa Monica, Calif., has become home to homeless and hungry college students.

Every night, 365 days a year, about eight students from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and Santa Monica College stay at UCLA’s Bruin Shelter hosted at Mount Olive.

Homelessness and food insecurity are growing problems among college students. One in 10 students in the area are estimated to be homeless.

“Once people get over the shock that there are homeless students, everyone has been very supportive of us,” said Eric Shafer, pastor of Mount Olive and a member of the Bruin Shelter board. “The night we opened [in October] it rained. We got kids out of their cars and off the street; it was very rewarding.”

Run by about 80 student volunteers, Bruin Shelter is a collaborative project. “None of this would have been possible without Pastor Eric and Mount Olive. They have been moral stewards by living their faith, and radiating patience and compassion,” said Louis Tse, a UCLA mechanical engineering graduate who envisioned the shelter. “The faith community has a unique role in alleviating homelessness, and Mount Olive has shown an allergy to complacency and leadership that is centered around unconditional kindness.”

With eight to nine beds, the shelter started out small and hopes to grow as a haven for college students who were living in their cars, couch-surfing, staying at the school library until it closed or hanging out at Starbucks.

Full-time college students, ages 18 to 25, arrive at the shelter around 8 p.m. and eat a meal together at 8:30 p.m., which is prepared by the volunteers, who also provide a bag breakfast. Two student leaders sleep at the shelter every night.

The shelter beds are currently located in two classrooms that weren’t being used and each has its own exit to the parking lot. Students can use the parish hall and balcony to hang out, talk and watch TV.

“The residents are always super thankful for the shelter,” said Jane Wong, a student supervisor. “It never ceases to amaze me how much they want to better the shelter because they view it as their home. The residents often help prep dinner and spend time getting to know each other and the staff. We could chat on and on about trivial things or, at times, their concerns and stresses. This shows me that Bruin Shelter is slowly becoming a safe space for them.”

While students use the showers at their colleges, they can keep personal items in lockers at the church and receive mail there. They go through a rigorous interview and screening process organized by the student leaders.

“This is really well planned and structured,” Shafer said. “It’s not just cots in the church. The Bruin Shelter leaders even have a program to help the students get more permanent housing.

“The students do the bulk of the work. We’re a landlord, supporter and cheerleader for them. On most days we don’t even know they’re here. In some ways our building is more secure at night because there are people in it.”

Several congregation members serve as student liaisons, connecting with and assisting the shelter guests.

Shafer said the unanimous church council decision to host the shelter wasn’t hard to make since the congregation of about 220 members was already entrenched in the community. “Twenty AA groups use the church for meeting space, the Mount Olive preschool has 135 children, and many music groups meet here,” he said. “This place hums all the time.”

The shelter is 5 miles from UCLA and on the bus line, and is within walking distance to Santa Monica College. Last year, Tse approached Mount Olive after being turned down by more than 50 other places of worship. Mount Olive participates with the Westside Coalition for Hunger and Homelessness, and the group connected Tse with Shafer. “They knew we had space and we were happy to help,” Shafer said.

Mount Olive received a $2,500 grant from the Southwest California Synod for startup renovations and general expenses, and the beds were donated by another shelter. It is currently working with the city to meet requirements for safety updates to the shelter rooms, mostly installing fire safety precautions. The congregation is raising money for those updates now.

An architect volunteered to help Mount Olive with the plans to renovate the classrooms, including putting in a sprinkler system, fire windows and fire-resistant drywalls, and some electrical work.

“We’re a small place. If we could do this, other congregations could do this too,” Shafer said. “It’s needed across the country.”

Wendy Healy
Healy, former director of communications for Lutheran Disaster Response of New York, is an ELCA member and owner of Griffin Communications in Danbury, Conn., and author of “Life is Too Short: Stories of Transformation and Renewal after 9/11.”

Read more about: