Father Nestor Rodriguez, pastor of St. Ann Parish, addresses those gathered at a PEACE conference to learn more about the needs of the community, especially the homeless and displaced population. Behind him are clergy members of varying faiths who have joined the steering committee. (COURTESY)

Concerted efforts lend voice to the homeless

WEST PALM BEACH  |  In recent months, the homeless outreach ministry at St. Ann Parish in West Palm Beach has bolstered its support of the homeless population in Palm Beach County. The already large group of homeless individuals in the downtown area where the parish is located has only been exacerbated by the current COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a burgeoning displaced population. 

This issue, among others, has fueled the parish’s deep commitment to social justice through People Engaged in Active Community Efforts (PEACE). This non-profit, direct-action organization is comprised of faith-based congregations in Palm Beach County with the common interest of local social justice. Their mission is to address a broad range of critical community problems through the combined voices of its advocates. 

Catie Quanrud, a parishioner at St. Ann and a member of the its PEACE Homeless Steering Committee, said her personal experience with homeless individuals is what drives her advocacy with PEACE. Quanrud moved from Stuart to Northwood to be close to work. In her new neighborhood, homeless individuals were near the path where she often walked her dog. “One day, a homeless man offered my dog a peanut butter dog treat,” she said. “To be honest, I did not want that ministry (homelessness) to bleed over into my daily life.”

Being new in town, she was in search of a parish home. During one of her interactions at the park, Quanrud received a recommendation from an unlikely source. A few homeless men told her about a veteran who was distraught about his dog having fleas and how the religious sisters at St. Ann Place took the dog to a veterinarian and had it bathed for fleas. This moment of witness to those in need led Quanrud to join St. Ann Parish. 

“Homeless attend our church services. They sit in the back. They are part of our parish fabric,” Quanrud said. “What I could not understand was that I saw the same people struggling to survive every day – the same people over and over.” 

She began to advocate, calling local social services, but found she wasn’t getting anywhere. 

“It was a constant search to find someone to help and the problem was getting bigger every day,” she said. 

This was when Quanrud joined the parish’s PEACE ministry. She quickly partnered with Paige Shortsleeves, lead organizer for Palm Beach County’s PEACE district.

Each year, parishioners from throughout the Diocese of Palm Beach are invited to a PEACE House Meeting to discuss “What keeps you up at night?” On average, 800 people attend from Okeechobee, Jupiter, Belle Glade and West Palm Beach. Their focus isn’t on “How do we get rid of them?” but “What do we do to fix this?” 

Shortsleeves explained that each spring, a Nehemiah Action Assembly is held in the presence of the county mayor and commissioners. The process begins with listening sessions to identify the most pressing problems that need immediate solutions. Research is conducted by team members with the goal of transforming the culture of powerful social systems – government officials and corporate executives – who make decisions regarding public welfare in key arenas.

Next, they advocate for a seat at the bargaining table before crucial votes are cast that can change lives in adverse ways. Gathering a few thousand members, they address the county commission and present solutions. With the ear of public officials to implement meaningful changes, PEACE leaders have made remarkable progress. “Those moments are electric,” Quanrud said. “The tension moves the community forward. It takes on the biblical precedents of Nehemiah to appeal to the higher authority – a king.”

Homelessness is a highly challenged system Quanrud said. For example, the Lewis Center in West Palm Beach is a 60-bed residential facility for displaced families. It is overseen by United Way management and a case manager. But with a huge waiting list (there are over 4,000 homeless children in the county), pregnant women and children are priority. 

“People stay on the wait list indefinitely and are never placed,” Quanrud said. 

She believed that real change could be possible, however. As a PEACE network member, she was invited to join the steering committee, along with a Pentecostal and a Baptist minister. She felt intimidated. “I don’t have anything to offer here,” being the lone female among them. Then they invited her to speak on behalf of PEACE to the Board of County Commissioners in favor of a second homeless resource center. 

After 14 years of struggle, and three years of county staff negotiations, the second center was built. It currently serves as a temporary homeless center at the stockade at the South Florida Fairgrounds. However, it is at capacity because homeless individuals from John Prince Park in Lake Worth were transferred during the pandemic. 

In 2018, there was a barrage of media focus on the number of homeless camped at John Prince Park due to a lack of alternative housing. At the end of 2018, more than 2,000 people came together to advance the cause for a second center. Elected public officials are required to attend in person to negotiate a solution. At the Palm Beach County Convention Center the county commissioners present were urged to vote ‘yes’ for the second center and earmark $10.5 million for homeless care. A simple yes or no answer was requested. If yes, the audience applauded; if no, there was silence. All commissioners agreed publicly for the second center’s construction. 

More recently, the Glades community, where agricultural workers live en masse, had become a COVID-19 hotspot. Quanrud shared that PEACE approached Commissioner Melissa McKinley, who represents Wellington and the Glades, to form a partnership. Her staff identified Cares Act funds and found a way to utilize expenditures. County commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with the homeless resource center in the Glades area giving 150 individuals and families a place to live. 

“She got it done in the middle of a crisis,” Quanrud said.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the St. Ann Parish PEACE Homeless Steering Committee tackled yet another critical issue—the securing of a third homeless resource center in Belle Glade. The Glades area hospital was at capacity with patients and attempts to quarantine the migrant worker population in hotel rooms for two weeks was fruitless. As a result, an apartment complex in Pahokee was purchased with Cares Act monies to accommodate families. The Jerome Golden Center for Behavioral Health building in West Palm Beach will also be converted to serve the ministry’s needs. 

“Even a little bit of engagement gives you power to make your community like heaven on earth,” Quanrud said. “This ministry is part of my spirituality that was missing. You feel differently that as a community you can accomplish things.

She continued, “To me, this is the most fantastic experience. I am a great lover of the saints; I adore reading about their lives. The last year-and-half I studied Dorothy Day. She kept going. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t polished, but that’s where Jesus was. If Jesus was here today, which place would Jesus be?”

To learn more about the PEACE ministry at St. Ann Parish, contact Mary Macfarland at deedlebug233@aol.com or 561-818-2841. Follow the parish on Facebook @StAnnChurchWPB or visit stannchurchwpb.org.