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March 27, 2012 > History: Homeless

History: Homeless

It has been said that the only people who lived here and never had to deal with homelessness were the Native Americans. If they lost their home, they could readily construct a replacement from nearby materials.

The first European Americans who came to this area had to camp out or live in a mission adobe until they could construct a house. Farmers usually provided work for newcomers, at least part of the year.

Railroads changed the homeless scene. Many men who had no jobs or didn't want one "rode the rails" to our area. Some of them lived in box cars and reportedly made daily trips into towns, especially Niles, to beg for food. It became a common practice to require "hoboes," sometimes called tramps, to cut wood before they were given food. By 1890, care of the needy had become "the county's most harassing subject."

Towns near railroads usually had hobo camps, sometimes called jungles, that served as temporary homes for these wanderers. But life was uncertain even there. The tramps often had problems with campfires, especially the ones they built in buildings. They were often blamed for thefts of food and forced to move on by law enforcement officers.

There appeared to be no governmental effort to help homeless people except to push them away so they would be someone else's problem, but a few organizations tried to help. The Native Sons and Daughters of Niles sponsored an annual ball for the benefit of homeless children; five hundred people attended the ball at Washington Union High School in 1937. This annual ball appears to be one of the first local efforts to help homeless children.

Several local clubs formed in the 1920's to aid poor children. The Child Welfare Club of Washington Township, organized at the home of Mrs. Frank Dusterberry in 1928, appears to be the only one that survived. They supported the old William Tyson home and in 1950 were locating homes for foster children. In 2003, with 34 members, they celebrated 75 years of helping homeless families with children. Berta Hirsch was honored for 56 years of volunteer service.

Pearl Harbor and World War II changed everything. There was a labor shortage and everyone was needed. There was no time or inclination to worry about homeless people. After the war, the area became involved in the problems related to growth, development, zoning, incorporation and unification.

Gene La Sage and her husband George read an article in the Reader's Digest about the Anglican Church program set up in England to help people who would hang a fish symbol in their window to signal their need. They decided circa 1968 to start a Fish program in Fremont. It was truly an ecumenical program involving several churches but with no money. Volunteers ran a 24-hour emergency phone line. Many of the workers including Mary and Bob Mitchell, Nancy and Paul Svenson and Dave and Jan Gayner were from St. James Church. Housing was sometimes provided in private homes. Doris Whitaker housed a refugee family sponsored by St. James.

St. James fed homeless people at St. Vincent de Paul in the 1970's and '80's with the help of other churches. Workers included Mary and Bob Mitchell, Jean Dickson, Mel and Alice Johnson, Don and Genore Schaaf, Marnie Hartmann, Margaret Broun, Bob and Betty Bell, Bud and Pat Spalding, and Margaret Rainey as well as those who had been initially involved in FISH. More women had to go back to work and the FISH program dwindled down to about six members.

Volunteers ran a winter program with singles housed at St. James Episcopal Church and families at Niles Congregational Church. St. James members led other churches in a program serving nightly dinners at St. Vincent de Paul on Decoto Road. Winter Relief rotated between various churches. Breakfast was provided at Irvington Presbyterian Church and some dinner meals were served at the Centerville Presbyterian Church Free dining room.

The homeless situation needed more than these band-aid attempts so the idea of a permanent shelter was conceived. Mary Mitchell from St. James Episcopal Church and Mary Hewitt from Niles Congregational Church spearheaded a drive which resulted in the Tri-City Homeless Coalition. Out of this, a full fledged campaign was formed to convince the Fremont City Council to approve plans for a shelter to house homeless singles and families with children.

With much effort and through many delays, approval was finely obtained. Five years from beginning efforts with the City Council, Sunrise village on Brown Road in Fremont opened for business in 1999. Today hundreds of volunteers provide three free meals, 365 days a year.

Tri-City Homeless Coalition was incorporated in 1989 and celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2009 with a name change to Abode Services. It continues to provide long term housing solutions for individuals and families. Centerville Presbyterian Church, Irvington Presbyterian Church and other local organizations continue to serve meals to people in need with the help of dedicated people and volunteer groups.

The housing-homeless problem has not been permanently solved, but it has certainly improved with the help and tireless efforts of many committed volunteers.

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