Empowered By Orange County United Way

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By THERESA WALKER | thwalker@scng.com | Orange County Register

For the past week, the only part of the mural at the historic First United Methodist Church in Costa Mesa that passersby could see from 19th Street was the intriguing words “What Solves,” painted in purple hues on a bright blue background.

Until an unveiling ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 31, temporary fencing blocked the next word beneath that: “Homelessness.”

Now any curious soul can walk over to see all of what artist Brian Peterson created on behalf of Orange County United Way to support a seemingly simple idea. An arrow directs attention to another side of the mural, where a comfy living room scene and the words “Home Sweet Home” (fashioned to look like framed needlepoint) answer the question: a home solves homelessness.

The living room Peterson created includes a three-dimensional feature — a narrow steel bench bolted to the wall and painted to look like the seat of the couch. It can fit up to five people, invited to sit and ponder the issues raised by the mural.

The United Way commissioned Peterson, who paints portraits of homeless people through his Faces of Santa Ana project, to create the mural as part of its United to End Homelessness  initiative launched early last year to house the chronically homeless.

Over the four days it took to finish the mural, Peterson was assisted by a couple of friends. Damin Lujan, a sign painter and woodworker who loves to create graffiti art, spray painted the “What Solves” side. Ned McGown, who once was homeless, helped with the base coat and cleanup.

On Saturday morning, about 150 people — local elected officials, homeless advocates and supporters of United Way, church congregants and community members — whooped at the celebratory moment when United Way staff moved a black curtain to reveal the mural.

People took turns taking photos while seated on the mock couch, some holding the sign, “I’m In! #EndhomelessnessOC” that Becks Heyhoe, director of the United Way homelessness initiative, encouraged them to post on social media.

“There’s power in conversation that can spark change and inspire solutions,” Heyhoe said.

“Everybody wants in,” Morse said later, as he watched the buzz around the mural, painted at a cost of $7,650 that United Way paid to Faces of Santa Ana. Materials to prep and paint the building were donated by Hanna Construction and Behr Paint Company.

The mural covers three sides of an AT&T server building in the church lot. The third side is painted to look like the front of a house, with a door slightly ajar — and a real mailbox that holds cards with information on United to End Homelessness.

United to End Homelessness is a collaborative effort involving Orange County’s community leaders — business, faith groups,  philanthropic organizations and people in the grassroots. The goal is to garner public support for supplying the housing needed to diminish the size of the county’s homeless population, documented at nearly 7,000 people in a January homeless census.

The housing-first model United Way supports calls for making permanent housing a priority to move chronically homeless people off the streets and then provide the services to stabilize their lives and keep them housed.

The United Way campaign’s foundation is a 2017 study, paid for by United Way and nonprofit developer Jamboree Housing, in which UCI researchers determined that Orange County taxpayers could save $42 million annually in health care, law enforcement and other expenses by adopting a housing-first model to get chronically homeless people off the streets.

The outreach since last year has included a public messaging blitz,  Homelessness 101 sessions to educate the public and a joint effort with county officials, landlords and apartment owners to open units to tenants with housing vouchers.

Just on Friday, United Way successfully completed a “House 30 by August 30” to raise $500,000 on GoFundMe to help 30 people with subsidized housing vouchers cover additional costs of up-front deposits, holding fees, furnishing, and other needs. Making it possible for those 30 people to rent apartments also could help Santa Ana acquire up to 300 more vouchers from the federal government.

The mission-style First United Methodist Church, a presence in Costa Mesa since the early 1900s, is part of the campaign’s faith cohort. The Rev. Sarah Heath, pastor of the congregation, spoke earlier in the week about how happy she was for the church to host the mural.

“The first step really is getting housing for folks,” said Heath, who has led the church since 2016 and has built up its dwindling membership to about 100 members. “Just giving resources doesn’t work.”

First United used to operate a soup kitchen out of one of several buildings that were located where the parking lot now exists. The location remains a place where homeless people come to try and sleep on the grounds, and where illicit drug use has been an issue. Signs posted around the parking lot warn that the Costa Mesa police are authorized to patrol the property and arrest trespassers.

Costa Mesa opened a temporary 50-bed homeless shelter in April and has plans for a longer-term facility. The mural project seemed a natural fit for a community with the moniker “City of the Arts.”

United to End Homelessness director Heyhoe said her organization hopes to identify other locations around Orange County to host a mural.

“If anybody has a wall and they’re interested in partnering with us, let us know.”

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