A Wish to Help the Homeless

By Gisela Sommer
Gisela Sommer
Gisela Sommer
August 14, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015
Children and parent volunteers for CHPHP deliver 'Thanksgiving In A Bag' gifts for the homeless people in their community. (Courtesy of CHPHP)
Children and parent volunteers for CHPHP deliver 'Thanksgiving In A Bag' gifts for the homeless people in their community. (Courtesy of CHPHP)

SAN DIEGO, Calif.—Twenty two years ago Christine Schanes offered a blanket to a homeless man near her home in Santa Monica, California. When her two young children and their friends heard about it, they too wanted to help. That very same day they collected more blankets and handed them out among homeless people on the beach. From this a grass roots community effort grew called ‘Children Helping Poor and Homeless People’ (CHPHP).

Christine Schanes is the director of CHPHP, a nonprofit 501 (C) 3. Over the years Christine has been raising awareness of the plight of hungry, poor and homeless people–our neighbors as she calls them–and has also trained a lot of people, including children of all ages to help the homeless in their communities. Today CHPHP partners with three school districts, works with students from about 200 schools in five states and with people all over the United States. Christine says that we can end hunger, poverty and homelessness.

The Epoch Times recently spoke with Christine Schanes about the need to help the hungry and homeless in the U.S., as well as common misconceptions about homelessness. She also shared about her new consulting business involving homeless veterans. The following are excerpts from the interview.

Epoch Times (ET):  Ms. Schanes, what exactly do you do?

Christine Schanes (CS):  My new business is about consulting of social service issues–societal issues of hunger, homelessness and poverty across all age lines and economic conditions. Everyone’s involved, and homeless people are of all kinds. About 40% of the people who are homeless are veterans, about 40% are women and children, and the remaining percentage are people who have just come upon hard times.

We expected the veteran number to go down because the Vietnam veterans who are homeless outside–many, many homeless veterans–were getting older and passing away. But now with the two wars we have waging, the young people coming back, the Department of Defence’s figures are saying that 17% of the soldiers coming back from these wars have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That’s a 30 to 40 year condition. And we are not providing them at this point with enough services to help them overcome that condition–post-traumatic stress disorder. Hence, they will be outside. So that number of 40% of people who will be homeless which refers to homeless veterans, remains the same.

The largest number of people who are homeless are women and children. And that is a growing number. And I don’t know of any program that is in place at this moment to prevent that number from getting bigger.

(ET):  What’s your estimation how many homeless people we have in the U.S. and let’s say here in San Diego?

CS:  “The total numbers are unknown. That’s really the bottom line. The best estimate are 670,000 to 2 million nationwide. I feel that the number is closer to 13 million nationwide, but the stated numbers are 670,000 to 2 million — very low numbers. San Diego has several thousand people who are homeless. Santa Monica has 915. Los Angeles county — their new numbers are not out yet — has been in the past fluctuating. It was 84,000 last count. 73,000 is the latest number for LA county, but it is not, in my opinion, a totally accurate number. The newer counts were all taken on the end of January of this year. Santa Monica’s is out, LA county is still waiting for it. It should be out by fall.”

ET:  With the present economic downturn have you seen the numbers of homeless increase?

CS:  Absolutely. The cities who count these numbers would prefer that the numbers go down. And finding homeless people is an effort, it is almost an art, because homeless people do their best to hide themselves. There isn’t any incentive that they can think of, at least the homeless people that I know, there is no incentive for them to be counted. The cities have done their best, I believe, to find homeless people to count, but the fact that the homeless numbers for several cities have gone down recently speaks more about the way people are counted than the number of people who are being counted.

ET:  I see quite a number of people in downtown San Diego, some of them even camping out in small tents on main streets or under overpasses. There are also probably a lot of misconceptions about homeless people, that they are drug addicts. I am shocked to hear how many of them are women and children. How do they become homeless?

CS:  You just asked a lot of questions. I’ll address the first comment you made — tents. In the past, during the cooler evenings here in San Diego, homeless people were allowed to have tents on public property around the post office and the library after the library closed, for example. But now the homeless people are getting citations for having the same tents. This just happened recently. There has been no warning to these people. I just spoke with one gentleman last Monday who told me he had a ticket which could be $250. Of course he has no money. And he had a tent that night, but he was prepared to sleep on the concrete without a tent. He told me that the tent provides him with a measure of comfort, privacy, and he feels protection.

About women and children becoming homeless, how are they homeless? They are homeless for several reasons, one is battering of the wives. There are a number of women who have gone through a battered situation and have become homeless. Another way that women become homeless is through foreclosures. The list of foreclosures is enormous. When a family has moved into their home with nothing down and then had a low mortgage payment, when that mortgage payment doubled and tripled they can no longer afford that mortgage payment. Often the family splits, and once the family splits from two incomes to one income there is no recourse for that woman and those children except to be outside. There are not enough shelter beds in any city that I know of in the United States to accommodate the homeless women and children.

Drug use and alcohol, when I speak about these issues I always include one more, and that’s cigarettes. All three substances are abusive, and they are terrible. And we have to understand why people use them. People use them because they feel that alcohol, drugs and cigarettes will somehow soften the condition, will somehow get them through the night, will be good for them at the moment. And sometimes they feel good for the moment. However, in a short time these substances become addictive, and the homeless person, when they want to come back into society has not only whatever other issues they have to overcome, but this new addiction. So we can understand that why people turn to alcohol, drugs and cigarettes, we don’t condone it, but we can understand it.

The figures for drugs and alcohol are 30% and 40% respectively. The city of Santa Monica has recently come out with a statistic that I hadn’t seen anywhere else that says 90% of their homeless people in Santa Monica, which they feel is 915, are addicted to something. I refute the 915 figure. I feel that that is very low, unfortunately. And for them to say that 90% of the homeless people are addicted while the national standard is consistently lower is of interest to me. It may be. Or it may be for the benefit of regulations which, from HUD, requires for some programs that a person be chronically homeless. And here again, I feel it is very unfortunate using the term chronically homeless. Chronically is a medical term, and when a person is un-housed, if they’re housed, they are no longer homeless. So the term chronically, I feel is an unfortunate word that was somehow incorporated into HUD regulations some time ago. I’d love to have them change that. But using the terms that they have now, chronically homeless people are people who are unaccompanied homeless people with a disability, consistently for one year or more. Or they are individuals, unaccompanied, who have a disabled condition and have had four episodes of homelessness within the past three years.

So this begs the questions of, what if you’re homeless from the Vietnam war, does that bout of homelessness count? There are lots of little wrinkles on that. But that’s basically about the definition of homelessness. So, when you’re unaccompanied, does that mean that you can’t be a couple and be outside together, or a mother and child, there are all kinds of little questions that go along with that definition.

ET:  You have been helping the homeless for a long, long time, and it’s become a business, I guess. How did you get involved in this work?

CS:  It didn’t start to be anything. Actually I was an attorney working in downtown LA (Los Angeles) and had noticed homeless people walking by my home. And since I wasn’t home all day I was concerned about the safety of my children who were eight and six. And at the same time I was concerned for them (the homeless). I saw homeless people walking by my home. I saw a pregnant woman with no shoes on. It was very cold, and she had no shoes. People that didn’t have jackets. They were not dressed appropriately for the weather.

And so I went to my best friend Augustine, she was 80 at the time, a very beautiful woman. I described the situation to her and asked her, “What shall I do?” And she said to me, “Well, give them a blanket!

So I went home and got a blanket. Two and a half blocks from my home I saw a man kind of meandering down the sidewalk. I pulled my car to the side and offered the blanket to him, asking him, “Excuse me, would you like this blanket?

Now I don’t say that anymore. We use terms as, ‘Excuse me, Sir, do you know anyone who could use this blanket?’

But this was the first time, and there was no response, completely blank. I figured I didn’t know the language so I started to shout at him, ‘Excuse me, would you like this blanket?’

Again, there was no response. So I just gave the blanket to the man. I extended the blanket to the man, and luckily his hands came up and I lay the blanket in his hands. I was very relieved. I started to cross the street to leave when I heard him say, ‘God bless you, sister.’

Anyway, I’d go home to my kids and told them the story and they said, ‘Well Mom, we can do that!’

They talked to their friends and the kids got 15 blankets. I took them to the beach and we gave them out in about a minute and a half. And from that time on it became a very organic grass roots community effort. It was just a very natural growth.

This was 22 years ago. Since then we have gotten a lot of people involved. We are partners with three school districts, Santa Monica, Malibu, Beverly Hills and LA Unified. We work with students from about 200 schools in five states and we work with people all over the United States.

The exact programs now we are working on is ‘Direct Service’ which is a new concept that is helping your neighbor directly. There are very few organizations, unfortunately, that work with children. Ours is one of the few. And we are encouraging our young people and adults to do just what we did when we started ‘Children Helping Poor And Homeless People,’ and that is, ‘Direct Service’. And there are a few tips, such as those magic words, “Excuse me Sir (Madam), do you know anyone who could use this blanket, or whatever.” So we are constantly encouraging young people to directly serve someone in need — their neighbor.

Another thing we do is our annual ‘Children Helping Poor and Homeless People’ Thanksgiving-in-a-box program which has grown over the years. This is a program that takes place on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and donors come with a box that is a basket full of Thanksgiving food appropriate for the season in cans and packages, and with a 15 or 20 dollar gift certificate for the main course. And then, at the same location, which is usually a public park, our recipient distributors come. And they are Children's Services and all kinds of agencies who come and they take those baskets, bags or boxes to the families. And the secret to Thanksgiving-in-a-box is that the families not only get a beautiful feast for the day of Thanksgiving, but they get groceries for the week, and that’s the big deal.

Then the third thing we are doing is raising awareness about the plight of hungry, homeless and poor people. And we are doing that through all kinds of publications.

ET:  What other services do homeless people have available to them that are public services?

CS:  Let me first say, ‘Children Helping Poor and Homeless People’ is a department of Nos Amis/Our Friends, Inc., which is the parent nonprofit. But we are the main function of what Nos Amis/Our Friends does. We have a 501 (C) 3 and donations are tax deductible.

Services for homeless people are not plentiful. There are some. There are sometimes strings attached; you have to be at a certain place at a certain time. There is one lovely example, actually, that is bread and roses that St. Joseph’s Center does, and you have to register a day in advance for your breakfast. They have several shifts of forty people at a time. It is a lovely program, but registering in advance is the challenge. And it makes sense to know who is coming.

I feel that there are three things that we need for homeless people. One is public showers and toilets with attached laundry services open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That just makes sense. It is very unfortunate and unfair to complain about public defecation and public urination without providing 24 hour bathrooms. It’s just a matter of common sense and human decency.

Next thing is transitional housing. People need a place to go. There are not enough shelter beds for the homeless people. So we need to have transitional beds. We need to have beds for certain people, veterans, for example, who come back from war with PTSD, where they are slowly reintroduced to the concepts of rooms again. So it may be that at first you may need a tent with supervision, with helpers who welcome these people from the trauma that they have suffered, back to society.

And then the third way I feel that we can help end homelessness is: keep every program going, and also include closed military bases. We can then establish on these closed military bases a building for an orphanage for these children who are unaccompanied by any parent; a building for dual diagnosis, people who have a mental problem and an addiction; apartments for couples, apartments for families; have organic farming and have this be a self-sufficient village where the village would have enough cottage industry to support itself, but be close enough to a school district so you don’t have to reinvent that wheel. I envision it being governed just like you would have a Kibbutz in Israel, along with a council; perhaps the founders could form the first council and then educate how you govern yourself with the residents of this village so that they can go for those positions.

Sometimes we ‘housed’ people will see a homeless person and say, ‘They look healthy, why aren’t they getting a job? Are they lazy?’  Well, there are a couple of reasons. One is that for homeless people sleeping is a very hazardous activity. Oftentimes homeless people will sleep during the day and walk during the night. Because at night they are defenseless.

One day I was talking to Cowboy, a very big guy, he said he was afraid of sleeping. And so he only slept during the day when he felt there was more protection because there were more people around. So when these people are sleeping during the day it looks like they are lazy, they are not working and only sleeping.

Another thing is when we see a person who is homeless and we feel, why aren’t they working, it would be helpful for us to understand that when we go to work we need to be clean, number one. Even in order to work at a fast food place, you have to be clean, otherwise the place could be closed down by the Department of Health, and rightfully so. So unless this person has access to a shower and toilet and clothes that are cleaned from time to time, they cannot hold a job.

So that goes back to the fact that the thing a homeless person needs is immediate emergency help, which is food and water, toilets, showers.

ET:  I don’t think a lot of people in America really know about the exact situation of the homeless in America. I mean, we walk by them and may think, they don’t want to work, or they are drug addicts.

CS:  I think that’s why my new business is important. We, ‘Children Helping Poor and Homeless People’, have been ‘living’ newspapers for these 20 some odd years, and through my consulting business I hope to help government agencies and civic groups — banks for example would be a lovely group — help them understand the situation that people have. These are human beings; there are things that we can do to help these people. Before the 70s there were very few people who were homeless. They were called Hobos, and they were mainly men. In the 70s and 80s, through the policies we had of cutting back on mental health programs and having ‘bus therapy’. When people were released from California mental state hospitals they were given passes, they were released with a pass to go to another city. And this was called ‘greyhound therapy’, just to remove homeless people from a given area.

So the cities have to understand, and this is a big deal, this is in the constitution of the United States: we have a right to live, we have a right to exist. And if every city, one by one, closes their doors by legislation, municipal or statewide, to homeless people, they’re actually preventing homeless people from living. This is unconstitutional. They have to have a place to live. No city can really pass a law that says homeless people cannot be in the city. We cannot criminalize an economic status that is severe poverty, which is homelessness. So we have to open up our hearts and minds. And that’s my new job, to help people understand. We have to understand why people have addictions. We have to understand why we should help these people. They are our brothers and sisters.

ET:  And with the veterans it is obviously that they have been traumatized fighting in wars, and are having difficulty reintegrating into society?

CS:  You are so right. The condition, post-traumatic stress disorder, is a severe condition. We used to call it shell shock, battle fatigue. And now we call it PTSD–the same condition, 30 to 40 years. And it is such a loss of the person’s self that it’s really beyond the scope of what the family can do. This whole issue of homelessness and homeless veterans requires a lot of understanding, which we all can have, it really expands us and is good for us to expand, to get this understanding. So I never put down the families. It’s just such a large condition that they don’t know what to do first.

The latest thing that has been reported on is that unfortunately some soldiers have come back and hurt their wives. And that is all, in my opinion, part of the same lack of themselves. They’ve lost large parts of themselves and we need to help them because they are owed that.

Before the 70’s it wasn’t like that, and we can house everyone. This is not an issue. There are a few people that are always want to be outside and that’s fine. But for those people who do not want to be outside, which is 99% of the people, we can certainly provide them shelter, food clothing and bathrooms. We have empty military bases. There are many things we can do. People of good will can come together and that’s why I have my new consulting business, that’s my goal.

And we need to keep people alive for each day and that requires food and water, bathrooms and shower facilities. Occasionally someone will say, even in print, and it is usually, unfortunately a service provider, that if you serve a person food and water, there is this mistaken belief that you are then keeping that person from seeking the services of this established service provider. That’s not true. What you’re doing is keeping people alive which is a very important thing, and hopefully as they are nourished by what you’ve given them, then they can find their way to that service by that service provider. So we all need to work together. You need emergency services and ongoing services.

ET:  You said you are an attorney. What exactly is your background and what else have you done before getting involved with helping the homeless?

CS:  I am a graduate from San Diego University, with a law degree from American University and a Ph.D. from Notre Dame. I served as a Deputy Attorney General for the State of California, Department of Justice and also as Senior Attorney for Atlantic Richfield Company, and after that I was in private practice. When I was with the Attorney General’s office I practiced constitutional law and represented the 11 state hospitals and the 22 regional centers. Some of them since have been closed, and many programs have been closed. And it was after those experiences, when I saw homeless people walking by my home I had to…I reflected on my life and whether what I was doing was that important. And this is the best job that I have ever had.

People are like I was. You have to wake up. I was following a very lucrative path in my life based on my educational choices and found out now that this was the best job that you could have, helping other people.

ET:  How many children have been or are involved in this work since you started. Tell me more about the children that are helping.

CS:  Well, ‘Children Helping Poor and Homeless People’ is formally described as an educational outreach program conducted by children and teens with adult advisors, directly helping those in need. And through this program over the years we’ve worked with thousands of students — I would guess around 15 thousand a year — and countless adults. We don’t count the adults, they are always welcome, and there are more than the children, hopefully.

The children, children of all ages, can do a number of things. If you go on our Web site  <www.chphp.com>  you can see a picture of Katherine at two with her mother Ellen. Katherine has been with us since she was ten months old, and now she is 13 years.  We have a lovely example of Rebecca who graduated from UC Santa Cruz, and she was working with us one day, and I said to her, ‘Rebecca, you have worked with us a lot,’  and she said, ‘well, forever!’  And I said, ‘No really, really, Rebecca, how long has it been?’  She said, ‘Since kindergarten.’

I was speaking to a woman yesterday, her son is 12, and I encouraged her to do Direct Service just like we have done. She was so excited about the opportunity for her son to directly help someone. We use those magic words and we also use common sense. Like going to a well-lit area with adults. We encourage young people to go with their parents, even teenagers, and parents may even want to go in a group. So the mother was very happy and when he (the son) is going to college in September, he will be able to bring the knowledge and compassion that he encouraged in himself to involve the other students in his class. That’s how it usually works.

There is one question that is usually raised and that is, ‘The homeless person didn’t say thank you to me.’  And that is a very understandable question.  

But the answer is: ‘How did you feel when you gave that hamburger?’  And the young person or adult always say, ‘It felt great!’

And the response is, ‘That’s your thank you.’  We are always thanked when we help our neighbor, always.


Gisela Sommer
Gisela Sommer