The plight of the homeless is heartbreaking enough during normal times; their circumstances become devastatingly dire when there’s a pandemic. Not only do the homeless have to worry about where to get food and spend the nights, they have the added anxiety of how to keep safe from a virus they cannot see yet has infected over 34 million and killed more than 603,000 people in the United States.Organizations with a mission to help the homeless face the same challenge as they try to find volunteers willing to brave the risk of infection and keep the financial resources coming in. So it is only fitting that they get recognized for weathering the crisis. Friends in Deed, an interfaith social services agency founded in Pasadena in 1894 to provide supportive services to meet basic human needs for homeless and at-risk community members, has been named 2021 California Nonprofit of the Year for Senate District 25 by Senator Anthony Portantino.
According to a statement released by the organization to announce the award, Friends In Deed (FID) is one of more than 100 nonprofits throughout California that will be honored by their state senators and assembly members for their tremendous contributions to the communities they serve, particularly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Senator Portantino’s 25th District encompasses portions of the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.
Friends In Deed has five core programs, including a Food Pantry providing 2,500 households over 635,000 pounds of food yearly; The Women’s Room, a day shelter for homeless and at-risk women, offering free services like over 500 laundry loads and almost 600 showers for guests annually; a weather-activated Bad Weather Shelter providing a warm meal and refuge from the cold, wind, and rain in the winter months; a Street Outreach and Housing team working to end homelessness on the streets of Pasadena with about 20 people successfully housed each year; and an Eviction Prevention and Rental Assistance program offering emergency rent, case management, or rental assistance resources to approximately 280 households each year.
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, who has been Friends in Deed’s executive director since 2017, was tasked to lead the organization through these unprecedented times. Nothing in his training nor previous experience could possibly have prepared him for the daunting and heart-rending undertaking.
Asked by mail how he managed, Rabbi Grater replies, “A few things kept me going — our amazing staff and how dedicated they were to our clients and guests, never giving up and continuously working to adapt, innovate, and stay the course through the challenges; the folks that came to FID who needed our services, and were so happy that we were open and assured they weren’t alone to face such challenging and painful times; and the immense community support and outpouring of love and appreciation for our work. Each day that felt overwhelming or that the new challenge presenting itself was too much, the staff, guests, and community kept me going and gave me the strength to persevere and face each new day with a sense of hope.”
The pandemic notwithstanding, FID didn’t waver on its mission. Rabbi Grater says, “COVID had a huge impact on our programs, but through the hard work of our staff and dedicated volunteers, we are proud to say that our services operated continuously throughout. We adapted our food pantry to outdoors in our parking lot; we implemented social distancing and limits on guests in The Women’s Room; we converted our Bad Weather Shelter, which wasn’t feasible, to a cold weather clothing distribution twice a week; and we used funds, public and private, to put many clients into motel rooms, providing safety, security and a sense of home while we helped to locate bridge or permanent housing.”
There are ongoing necessities according to Rabbi Grater. “Our most important needs are unrestricted funds to support our Eviction Prevention and Rental Assistance program, which is handling all of the people who are at risk of losing their homes and facing thousands of dollars in back rent. We also have an ongoing need for more space, so if anyone has a piece of property or a building they want to donate to us, we would love that!”
To support their activities, FID obtains funds from various sources. Rabbi Grater says, “We are grateful to have individual donors, foundations and grants, community partners, congregations, government agencies, and some corporate sponsors to sustain us. Additionally, we’ve held fund-raising events. Our main fundraiser has been Jazz on the Green, a wonderful evening under the stars at Castle Green, where we gather for food, drink, silent auction, community, and, always celebrating honorees — an individual, a congregation, and a business partner. For the past few years, we’ve also had a very successful golf tournament.”
Other nonprofits in the area also offer tremendous assistance. “We have a regular food pantry, we offer rental assistance, and we have a day refuge for at-risk women and those experiencing homelessness; these are programs unique to FID. However, Union Station Homeless Services (USHS) is a regular partner for us, and we share many of the same clients at different stages of their journey. USHS has a jobs program and we also connect folks to local job centers,” Rabbi Grater discloses.
FID’s support goes beyond shelter for the night. Rabbi Grater says, “Our Outreach Team and Housing Navigators keep in touch with clients to see how they are faring. In most of the programs that we pass people along to, be it bridge housing or permanent supportive housing, they have their own case management team so we know our clients are in good hands. We do usually continue to check in our folks for at least six months after we have housed them to continue to offer support.”
And Rabbi Grater has a couple of success stories to share:
“Linda is a Pasadena native who has been homeless for 17 years, sleeping under bridges or in shelters when she could find one that would take her in. Due to the physical and emotional damage caused by abuse from her family, she is on disability, but she always spent her disability checks on motel rooms for as many nights as she could, and relied on panhandling for food. She lost her previous housing when the building was bought by a new property management company, which evicted all the folks on disability. This is not an uncommon story.
“During the day, Linda spent her time mostly in parks — reading, writing, and doing art. She has worked with several different organizations to try and get housed, but nothing has ever quite worked out for her. Finally, a friend gave her Friends In Deed’s phone number. We were able to get her into an emergency motel program, and then worked with her to get into permanent housing.”
Continues Rabbi Grater, “At the time of writing, our Outreach Specialist and Housing Navigator Najwa Payton Jones is at the permanent housing facility, working with the staff and Linda to get all the paperwork done so that she can get the keys! She will be moving in next Thursday.
“Linda says the thing she is looking forward to most about having her own home is to no longer worry constantly about being attacked. She also hopes to go back to school and finally earn her high school diploma, and we wish her the very best of luck!”
Another story involves a man. Rabbi Grater relates, “Porfirio who worked for 20 years in the same job, and then lost it because of the pandemic. His wife of 30 years told him to get out if he wasn’t bringing home any money. Already suffering from mental illness, he walked away and slept in a Pasadena park for three weeks.
“When he was found, Porfirio was severely ill with malnutrition,” adds Rabbi Grater. “It took multiple coordinated efforts from Pasadena homeless agencies to get him the help he needed. As a start, he was housed in a single-room-occupancy facility which also provided him with social services support.
“However, Porfirio is very independently minded, and he wanted to stand on his own two feet. The FID Housing Location program was able to assist him with getting his own apartment in Pasadena, which has returned his sense of independence to him, and he is now actively looking to get back to work.”
Finally, Rabbi Grater notes. “We were founded in 1894 and have been operating continuously, in one form or another, since then — 127 years! While our revenue, staff, and programs have grown significantly in the last few years, it is the ongoing support and dedication of our hundreds of volunteers that allow us to provide the services with compassion, connection, and dignity to so many guests and clients. We truly live up to our motto: doing together what we cannot do alone!”