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Mobile mission

Connecting the homeless to physical and spiritual lifelines

Mobile mission

FAIRFIELD, Calif. - A 3-acre plot of land across the railroad tracks from this bustling suburb's downtown is stirring churches, businesses, and local government leaders. Scheduled to begin this fall: construction on that land of buildings with 30,000 square feet for training and rehabilitation, along with shelters containing 158 beds for homeless men, women, and children.

The Bridge to Life Center's 10-building design includes family housing units, a day-care center, men's transitional living quarters, a dining hall, education facilities, playing fields, and a 200-seat chapel. The center is a long-held dream of entrepreneurial minister Ron Marlette, but by 2008 he should finally be able to trade in his itinerant rescue mission for a stable residence for the addicts and low-income families he hopes to assist.

Eight years ago, Marlette founded Mission Solano and began sheltering Fairfield's homeless in a donated bus. Heat, meals, generator-powered television, and a portable toilet quickly attracted loiterers-and the scorn of city officials. With nightly temperatures dipping into the 30s, Marlette hit the gas of his mission on wheels, traveling to various church lobbies or sanctuaries in a temporary arrangement designed to get through the winter. But as warmer weather came, church doors remained open. "Three months has turned into eight years," Marlette explained, adding that most churches intend to continue the practice even after the Bridge to Life Center opens. "We've had churches fighting over who was going to get the homeless that night."

The mission's Nomadic Sheltering Program is now duplicated in municipalities throughout the nation. The model not only introduces desperate people to the hospitality of church communities but also inspires mercy ministry in previously apathetic congregations. Many pastors love it. "It's gotten some people who were sitting on the sidelines actually involved in ministering," said Art Zacher, pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Fairfield. "This is a ministry that many people can do, and they can see the impact."

On a recent Tuesday evening, Berean Baptist members barbequed burgers and hot dogs for 50 homeless guests. The visitors lugged floor pads and sleeping bags into the church before eating and catching a short sermon. During the ensuing free time, the men located sleeping spots in the sanctuary, some laying their gear on the stage, others between pews or around the baptismal. The women set up camp in an adjoining room.

Kim Collins and her newborn daughter Caylia Rose found privacy in an office down the hall, a special accommodation most of the nine partnering churches provide for women with young children. Collins, 21, and her fiancé, Dustin Swafford, moved to Fairfield in a last-ditch effort to find regular shelter and keep their baby from child services. Collins, who hopes to attend nursing school one day, is enthusiastic: "They provide me with formula. They provide me with diapers. Anything this child needs, she's getting."

Several hours earlier in the sweltering afternoon heat, little Caylia stayed cool in the air-conditioned offices of the mission's community outreach center, a hodgepodge of three disheveled buildings and two portable trailers that provides space for Bible studies and a six-man drug-rehab facility.

Tony Robbins, the rehab program's first graduate, sat in those offices, too. He now manages the program, having obtained degrees in Bible theology and counseling psychology at San Jose Christian College. "I had tried to stop drinking many times, but it didn't happen until I kept hearing the gospel message, the gospel message, the gospel message," he said.

Outside the offices, lines formed at the nearby shower shack, the mission's one facility that operates with county funding. "We promised not to pipe 'Amazing Grace' into the showers or put John 3:16 on the soap," Marlette joked as he stepped inside the outreach center's small kitchen and chapel space.

Marlette, who read his first book in a jail cell and converted to Christianity at a 1983 Billy Graham rally, has never apologized to government officials for his organization's evangelical approach. Nor is he overly dependent on the public funding. But when political pressure to curb homelessness has local politicians clamoring to write checks, Marlette does not object. "Some missions are scared to death of even sitting in the same room with a politician, let alone dialoguing and building friendships with them," he said. "But you don't have to compromise your faith in order to do this."

The Mission Solano board decided against toning down the evangelical flavor of their annual banquet last year, despite the presence of numerous civic leaders. After a come-to-Jesus gospel presentation, Fairfield vice mayor Harry Price, who has since become mayor, unexpectedly took the microphone and instructed every elected official to stand and come forward for maximum visibility during the offering.

The city of Fairfield has since pledged $900,000 toward Mission Solano's $9 million building project. City leaders are featured prominently on a fundraising video, extolling the mission's past accomplishments and urging their constituents to donate.

Still, the bulk of financial support originates in the private sector. Mission Solano generates more than half of its $2 million annual operating budget through social enterprises: coffee roasting, two thrift stores, and an auto lot. The businesses provide opportunities for job training-even long-term employment. "We really want to train people to do work," says social enterprise director Shawn West, as he drives through town in the mission's newly acquired delivery truck. "It's neat to be part of a business that's not just about the bottom line. For us, the bottom line is getting people off the streets." West donated his coffee-roasting business when he joined the mission's staff last year.

Nate Ratliff, 41, spent 14 years in and out of prison before entering the drug-rehab program earlier this year. He now drives a truck for the mission, helping collect donations for the thrift stores. His teenage children have begun to trust him again. "My priorities have totally changed," he said. "I wasn't really thinking about baptism a year ago."

Area businesses are handling building costs for the new facility. HomeAid Northern California, the charitable arm of the region's Home Builders Association, has pledged about $3.5 million. Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco has given $1 million to the project. Local corporations such as JellyBelly, the popular candy maker, and Sheldon Gas have also helped push the fundraising drive to near 70 percent of its final goal.

Such community support was not always so readily available. At a circuit court meeting in 2002, citizens rabidly opposed the construction of a permanent homeless shelter in any of the city's neighborhoods. Marlette's disappointment descended rapidly to despair that evening when a program participant stabbed a staff member to death on the kitchen floor of the outreach center. "I knew what the front page of every newspaper in the county was going to be the next day," Marlette recalls. "I thought to myself, 'All right God, this is it. There's no way they're going to let Mission Solano go anywhere after this.'"

But the publicity sparked a public rush of support for a rescue mission to help fight such violence. Mission Solano assumed that mantle.

While nomadic sheltering connects people to churches and provides safety throughout the night, it does not foster the stability of a permanent facility. The Bridge to Life Center will attempt to provide a consistent Christian atmosphere-and appealing aesthetics. "Architecture suggests something about what a community holds in value," said Tim LeFever, chairman of Mission Solano's board. "Those people who said 'not in my backyard' are now saying, 'This is something I can drive my kids by.'"

Mark Bergin

Mark Bergin