Dinner and a show: Homeless get restaurant-quality meal with entertainment at United Methodist in Woodland Hills
By Susan Abram, Daily News Staff Writer
TO VIEW/DOWNLOAD PDF FILE - CLICK HERE
WOODLAND HILLS -- The meat sauce is simmering, the Caesar salad tossed.
Carafes of chilled lemonade sit on ice, while in the oven, garlic toast reaches a crispy golden brown.
Dinner is about to be served.
As the guests file inside a dining hall decorated in fall colors, hosts greet them and lead them to their seats at red checkered cloth covered tables.
"It's Italian night tonight!" one host says through a smile to a guest. "We've got spaghetti, and a comedian and a rapper are coming in!"
While the San Fernando Valley has its share of food pantries and places where the homeless can have a warm meal, the Friday night dinners at the United Methodist Church aim to offer something more: a restaurant-like experience where there are no lines for food and where the homeless can truly be served, said Pastor April Belt.
Samy-Rae Strausbaugh, right, brings French bread from the oven to serve to the homeless at United Methodist Church in Woodland Hills on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. (Michael Owen Baker/Daily News Staff Photographer)
"I live in Woodland Hills and see a lot of homeless people living in their cars, in motor homes," said Belt, who heads the Woodland Hills-based Miracle Minded Ministries 3.
Belt said she searched for local churches willing to open their fellowship halls for the dinners. Then last March, the United Methodist Church at 5650 Shoup Ave., offered, where dinner has since been served at 6:30 p.m. each Friday night.
In Woodland Hills, where the median household income is $90,000, the homeless are more likely to hide, to isolate themselves.
"They're there, but people don't want to see them," Belt said.
And it is no surprise. The number of people on the state's food stamp program, known as CalFresh, has increased by 50 percent since 2008, according to figures released recently by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services.
For the first time ever, more than 1 million Los Angeles County residents are now receiving this nutritional assistance. There also has been an increase of more than 50 percent in the number of homeless families with children receiving assistance through the CalWorks welfare program.
"These are people who had jobs, careers, but they lost them and they're struggling," Belt said.
A good many of those who come to the meals are seniors.
Belt knows she can't solve the problem of hunger or homelessness, but said she can at least help.
The first time she held the meals, seven people showed up. Now she sees 50.
"They need the Lord," she said. "They need to know people care and feel like they have a family."
On a recent Friday night, chef Samy-Rae Strausbaugh directed volunteers in the kitchen to stir the turkey meat sauce, keep an eye on the toasting garlic bread donated by Whole Foods, toss the salad and get the ice cream sundaes ready.
Strausbaugh said she understands the struggles of the homeless. Her family tossed her out at 18 and she was left wandering Ventura County.
"There was nothing like this when I was homeless," Strausbaugh, 22, said. "I'd go to soup kitchens and stand in line, and that was fine, but I think if there was something like this, I would have gotten out of homelessness sooner."
For many who come, the Friday night event is a chance to share a filling dinner with friends. The evening also is about both forgetting and remembering: forgetting the car or underpass that serves as a home, and remembering that there are still people who care.
"They treat you like family here," said Sheila Neelan, 57.
Neelan's husband lost his job three years
ago and the couple lost their Valley home. He died five months ago, a result of blood clots. Neelan has been living in her car.
"You meet people here, and you don't feel so alone," she said.
Carlos Brooks is legally blind and takes a bus and walks several blocks to the church.
"The experience is really nice," Brooks, 60, said. "It reminds me that religion does save, and it's a wake-up call that nothing is going to stay horrible forever."
Others say the desperation of hunger can feed the lure of breaking the law, so the choice for them is simple: Come inside the fellowship hall and raise their arms to the Lord or get in trouble outside, and place their arms behind their back for the LAPD.
Natasha Styles laughs as comedian Blaise Brooks entertains during a meal for the homeless at United Methodist Church in Woodland Hills on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. (Michael Owen Baker/Daily News Staff Photographer)
On a recent Friday, local rapper MZ swung his arms in the air and led the diners into a rhyme about the Lord. "He's real! That's why we praise him! King of Kings! That's why we can't faze him!"
Belt and other volunteers danced along with guests.
"I just started volunteering and fell in love with it," said Westley Pierce, who serves as a security guard at the meals each Friday night. "They set this up so that it's almost like they are going out to eat."
Scott and Felicia Lewis said the volunteering experience lifts them both spiritually.
"We leave here with the feeling of Godliness," Scott Lewis said.
Steven Fowler, 33, and Veronica Solis, 30, take the bus from Van Nuys to the dinners. They learned about it through a program at another church.
"It's like one church opened the door to another church," Solis said. "If we were at home, we'd only be eating rice."
For some who come, the evening is more than just about a free meal: for some couples, it is the closest thing to a romantic date night.
"This is so much better than a restaurant because everyone knows us," said one man, who only gave his name as Adam. The 88-year-old man was a quality control manager back when he worked. He and his wife, Helen, 86, have been coming to the United Methodist Church each Friday night for six weeks. They live in transitional housing.
Both bone-thin, neither can remember how long they've been married.
"Long enough," Helen said with a smile. "We have our ups and downs, but we keep kickin'."
The couple called the meals a blessing.
April Belt meeting the needs of the homeless in Woodland Hills on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. (Michael Owen Baker/Daily News Staff Photographer)
"April is so warm and caring," Helen said of Belt. "And they have very good cooks."
"Part of the challenge is as you get older, life gets more challenging," Adam said. "Be we're together. We can survive anything."
Tymme Reitz, left, Samy-Rae Strausbaugh, center, and Bob Gale dish out spaghetti to serve to the homeless at United Methodist Church in Woodland Hills on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. (Michael Owen Baker/Daily News Staff Photographer)
See more photos CLICK HERE
Daughters of Destiny
December 18, 2008
"Miracle Minded" Interview with Pastor April Belt
Healing Evangelist, Pastor April Belt, founder of "Miracle Minded Ministries 3", gives an account of her mission trips to such countries as India and Mexico as well as her vision for where the ministry is going in 2009. In this very interesting interview Pastor April talks about how she came to the place in her life where she is now, the power of the Holy Spirit, her "Armour of God" ministry which is reaching out to our troops...and stories of miraculous healings.
Enjoy Pastor April's interview with
Jeanine Montgomery via this link: http://www.bigmediausa.com/archive.asp?aid=32631
Radio Interview in Mexico City