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Why is Alhambra stopping churches from housing homeless families?

In 2012 Jesse Chang wrote about the ongoing struggle between church and state. First Baptist Church had wanted to participate in a program to house homeless families, but the City said that the church was located outside of areas that were designated for homeless shelters. To circumvent this issue, First Baptist started housing the families in off-site hotels. Chang wrote to us recently to say that First Baptist has continued this act of charity, and that the City has not changed their policy on homeless shelters.  He continues to work for Kingdom Causes Alhambra – Monterey Park, a faith-based non-profit that organizes local churches, and helps create outdoor classroom gardens for campuses in the Alhambra Unified School District.


A San Gabriel Valley single mom with two kids was self-employed until the recession hit. Then her business tanked, and she resorted to cleaning homes and her child’s school. Soon the family was homeless, living and sleeping in her car at local mall parking lots.

Her story is all too familiar to clergy. Homeless individuals or families often approach churches for assistance: money for a bus token, food, or a room to stay in overnight. With the recession, the request for help has increased.

As a community organizer working with faith groups, I was intrigued three years ago when a church leader told me they had heard about a better solution to homelessness. Family Promise, a national non-profit network that helps families get permanent housing by utilizing a network of local churches, was creating a new project in the west San Gabriel Valley and recruiting members. The program leverages church resources to find a local solution to homelessness — providing homeless families with a hand up, not a handout.  A network of area churches currently hosts three to four families a week, feeding and housing them overnight while offering job and housing resources and counseling during the day. Family Promise helps families save any generated income to get back on their feet when they exit the program.

Participants in a Family Promise programAfter years of preparation, last winter the program launched with South Pasadena, Monterey Park, Sierra Madre, Rosemead and Pasadena congregations participating. But while Alhambra churches were interested as well, the city has put up obstacles to the program: officials have maintained during more than a dozen conversations and meetings that housing these families would be a violation of local regulations.

Instead, the city, which currently lacks a homeless shelter, maintains it has designated two potential locations for homeless shelters. A church actively seeking to participate, First Baptist Church of Alhambra, does not fall into those two areas. Officials’ suggestions to build a shelter in the allowed zones were impractical and outside of the format of Family Promise’s program where churches share responsibility for hosting a small number of families at a time who rotate locations.

When First Baptist tried to host the program in January, the city threatened to issue a temporary restraining order. The response in Alhambra is in stark contrast to neighboring Monterey Park where the city encouraged Family Promise, providing Block Grant money to the program and where three churches are now host congregations.

Notice of temporary restarining order for First Baptist of Alhambra

Restricting Family Promise is a serious loss for Alhambra. More than 5,000 homeless people live in the San Gabriel Valley, including about 1,800 people in families, according to the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments. But only 343 shelter beds are designated for families. And not one is in Alhambra.

Program participants

It is easy for the city leaders in this discussion to only focus on rules and laws, but I believe that the city has overstepped its bounds and infringed on religious freedoms. I also feel the city is failing to seize a viable solution for its residents. According to Family Promise, 75 percent of the more than 47,000 homeless they help nationally each year exit the program within 65 days. Already, during their time in Family Promise, a Pasadena family saved enough money to rent a house. The father got a drivers license and the mother began contributing and working outside the home. All of this was accomplished when a network of faith communities banded together.

Family Promise gives local churches the opportunity to make a personal connection with the issue of homelessness and offer a local solution.  I hope the city will want to partner with this network in creating even better ways of tackling the issue of homelessness—of people going through tough times—in our community.

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23 thoughts on “Why is Alhambra stopping churches from housing homeless families?”

  1. My family and I lived on Second and Woodword in Alhambra for 31 years. We were evicted as a result of a complaint I filed with the City of Alhambra Code Enforcement. There was some illegal construction taking place on the property where I lived, my family and I were exposed to lead and asbestos. So when a order to stop work was issued, my landlord retaliated and evicted us. My family has no income my mom is a single parent who is disabled, and a recent victim of domestic violence. It’s been 2 weeks since we lost the only home I know. We are now homeless living on the streets of Alhambra. At night I get so cold my feet and hands hurt, I tried looking for a shelter in Alhambra but there is none. The City of Alhambra should truly consider participating with Family Promise, or even open a local shelter. All I am asking for is a warm safe place to rest my head

  2. We are the City of Alhambra.

    If you dislike how the City is behaving, you need to get involved, let the council members know your opinion, and organize like-minded residents to make the change you wish to see.

    The City Council has regularly scheduled meetings; you can fill out a card to speak at the meeting about any topic you feel important. Details about meetings and their agendas are on the City web site: http://cityofalhambra.org/

    Vote against the council members if you don’t think they represent the best interests of the City. And elect someone who you think will do a better job to represent the city.

    1. Thanks neighbor for the reminder that we still live in a representative democracy. I didn't want to get into all the details in this opinion, but all of your suggestions are precisely the sort of tools ordinary residents are using to voice their opinions and advocate for changes they want to see. But it's good to remind people that it's not enough to just complain!

  3. So what do we expect from our city council who think they are living in Mayberry? I don’t understand if the other cities not only encourage, but fully support and are part of this solution, why is the Alhambra City Council soooo concerned about these rules? Oh yeah, city council is more interested in tearing down family housing in order to have their developer special interest supporters continue flooding the city with condos that are out of reach of the average family. More and more city council represent only big money special interests groups at the expense of people’s needs. No use “shame on them” because they could care less.

  4. Alhambra Resident

    There are homeless people everywhere. They will go anywhere that will provide their needs. This is not just an Alhambra problem, but a REGIONAL issue.

    Perhaps more cities SHOULD WORK TOGETHER and stop picking on just one city…

    1. the fact is many cities have already acted on it, but Alhambra doesn’t even want to help out people who are in need. Please know that we are not just talking about an issue, we are talking about real people, families, and children.

      1. City Council represents the majority of Alhambra – dump all of their problems on others – homeless can be moved along to SoPas or to ElMOnte or Monrovia, same with SR-710 and traffic – move it over to LA, SoPas or Pas – NOT in ALHMABRA’s back/side yards but watch out Meridian Av. in Emery Tract…and WestmontDr/Charmwood-SR-710 will be dumped on you, Alhambrans. Many want to change but few have the courage/motivation to do much in the present economic conditions..and they/we just give up…and that is what the incumbents want. Like shootings, homelessness takes more than a few hours and a few votes because real people rather than real estate people…

      2. This is an issue, and with real families. Who said Alhambra residents don’t want to help. Many do. But you want it at the expense of the ENTIRE city.

        And these issues are not simple. They are long-term issues that need to be addressed by the homeless people. I’ve dealt with many homeless. Alot of them have mental issues as well.

        Everyone thinks homeless people can be easily helped by a handout or a shelter. That is far from truth…

        Takes alot of community involvement. NOT JUST ONE CITY!!!

    2. Hi Alhambra Resident, thanks for the reminder that homelessness is a regional issue that requires regional solutions. I totally agree. I have been involved in the SGV COG's (Coucil of Governments, an collaborative org of cities in the SGV) Housing and Homeless Coordinating Council which was set-up to do precisely that. One of the challenges is getting individual cities to buy into any regional plans, as that does involve more than just talk and commitments in one's own backyard. Thus far I haven't seen any reps or participation from Alhambra.

      I also wanted to respond to the Resident's comments about the difficulties of helping the homeless, which for some reason I couldn't reply to individually. One of the educational bits we've tried to emphasize about this particular program is that we are helping a very specific demographic of the homeless population: the recently homeless, not the chronically homeless. Potential families are screened out if they have substance abuse, a history of violence, or not taking medication. And they are as families the most motivated to get out of their situation. There isn't a 100% success rate of course even amongst this highly select group within the homeless population, but it's still higher than orgs and shelters that work with the chronically homeless.

      I think I require clarification over how having Family Promise in Alhambra would be at the “expense of the entire city.” As this is a regional faith-based collaboration, there is nothing being asked by local governments in either money, staffing or time. If it's something else, I would be happy to try and answer other concerns about potential cost to the city.



      1. Jesse, thanks for the clarification. Its important that we are aware of the issues of the recently homeless. But I also think that is why extended family relatives and friends of the recently homeless are important as well. As the other poster mentioned, some of the homeless (chronically perhaps) stay in motels and cars. These folks perhaps need more help.

        I will support a program that lets people help themselves in the long run, while providing the peace and safety of all residents in our city. I support this program only to an extent. It really fills in only a short-term need, subsidizes other areas outside our city, and lacks a plan that can show it can integrate its services not only to our city, but the regional goals as well. We need to clarify the mission goals better so it can sell itself. Not doing so can cause trade-offs and oher issues not yet perceived. These are the expenses to our city that I’m talking about…

  5. Zero funding is allocated from the annual budget for homeless needs and strategies. The city has performed and continues to perform unsatisfactorily toward addressing homelessness. We continue to “drag our feet” to implement emergency shelters and transitional housing. And we continue to rationalize that we do not have a homeless problem based on questionable data. Councilmembers and planning commissioners have said that there are little to no homeless visible. This is a shockingly ignorant and shortsighted statement in that most homeless are not out on the streets but rather are living in cars, motels, or with relatives. The City's has officially stated that it takes a “regional approach to homelessness” which is code for saying it relies on other cities and the county to provide.

    Yet the city is highly parochial when it comes to attracting other businesses and developers from surrounding cities with promises of subsidies and exceptions to ordinances with no concessions gotten for our residents. This is a race to the bottom and there's no telling how low our city “leaders” will go.

    1. Don’t be sure of this – remember that no one ran against anyone til the coming election…have the citizens given up or just conceded that nothing can be done???

      Wait until someone dies of exposure or heat or maybe beaten to death….

      Remember that without an informed citizenary – bureacrats and officials have a free range to do many things – Bellll

      1. By “race to the bottom”, I'm not referring to the upcoming elections.  I'm referring to the race our current council is running to attract businesses and developers to our city no matter what cost to the community.

        But there is hope for change.  It starts with Elizabeth Salinas.

      2. Elizabeth Salinas

        Thank you Eric. Sometimes it takes a very local issue, like what occurred and/or is occurring in Midwick (my neck of the woods) to get a person active. I felt I was not being properly represented on this issue and thus started attending City Council meetings and realized that while there are a lot of good things in Alhambra, there is also a lot of room for improvement. My sincere hope is that more people will get involved and start questioning what goes on in their City and why.

  6. Shame on the city of Alhambra and these crooked shady politicans. As a member of First Baptist Church of Alhambra I can assure you we have never asked for a nickel from the city. 

  7. Thank you for bringing attention to this important issue. 

    As individuals and as a community, we need to look out for one another, particularly in these difficult economic times.  Instead of creating barriers, the city should be appreciative of the faith group's efforts to help the homeless at little or no cost to the city.  The group has experience and expertise in sheltering and supporting the displaced, so any concern that this program could potentially create  an unmanageable or disruptive homeless population is unfounded.

    The faith groups have led by example and have given the city an opportunity to make a difference.  Let's take another look at this issue to see if the city can be part of the solution to help improve the lives of those who have nowhere else to go.




  8. I have been a resident of Alhambra for 54 years and have witnessed countless changes in the city’s development and social structure. In private life as well as in government life, we are constantly challenged to remain flexible and to adapt to fluctuating circumstances. There seems clearly a need to revisit the issue of Family Promise and the First Baptist Church of Alhambra, who are willing to reach out together with many other churches to help families severely affected by the sagging economy. The program of Family Promise is not opening floodgates of the homeless. There are times when we are forced to examine our value system and to determine, if we are willing to raise the bar not only in our private lives but also in our elected roles to govern a city. There is never a better time to do this than the present.

  9. Elizabeth Salinas

    Our elected officials are trying to turn a blind eye to a growing problem…the changing face of homelessness. If our churches want to do their ministry, they should be allowed to. If more can be done to address this problem, why shouldn’t it be.

    I agree 100% that this appears to be a move by the City to keep up this false image of the City and to somehow maintain their “business friendly” image. This issue, tied with the fact that City Council no longer approves of recycling centers is very suspicious and plain wrong.

    The City Council is also handling these issues inappropriately. I call for more town hall meetings, so the residents can hear, first hand, what our elected officials are doing and have an opportunity to raise these issues in an open dialogue, not simply during oral communications in City Hall meetings when you are only given 5 minutes to speak and our councilpersons are looking at the clock rather than listening to what you are saying then cut you off when your 5 minutes is up. This is also wrong.

    I am running for City Council and if elected, I will be a voice for the people.

    1. Elizabeth, you can count on my vote. I feel this entire, “out of touch,” City Council needs to be replaced with people like you, people with new ideas regarding the direction Alhambra needs to go. The current Council disregards public opinion and does exactly as they please. I am not making any accusations, but at times I wonder if this City Council acts as Bell, Lynwood, and others have.

  10. Barbara Messina once stated in City Concil – “There are no homeless in Alhambra”…then she reported that she had approached an apparently homeless person and offered to take him to a shelter and he refused….Alhambra is so good…check with Barbara…Then maybe you all could convert the “Alhambra Gateway” lot to a homeless shelter??? Tom

  11. Alhambra city officials have always said that they are “business friendly.” I wish and pray that our city would also be more “people friendly,” “family friendly,” and “children family,” including families that are in need, jobless parents, and homeless families.

    I think the city council and officials should reexamine their purpose and mission as governmental leaders and workers. Are they here to serve the people or to serve their own agendas?

    Churches are a very valuable asset in a community. There are too many needs out there for the government to handle. It is always the non-profits and the churches that help take care of people when the government’s resources are limited or exhausted.

  12. Excellent story. I just found out about the Alhambra Source and I am so glad that we can be informed about issues concerning our city. This information has been missing for so many years. I sometimes feel that I am living in another time here in Alhambra. The compassion for those in need is not with those who are running this city. This program is so needed in these hard times and our city officials do not have a heart. Why are they like that? Thank you Jesse for bringing this to the light of day.

  13. I think Alhambra needs to wake up to the needs of people and stop looking for any way possible to keep up an image that ignores problems. I think this goes hand in hand with the shutting down of recycling centers. The facts are in front of them that this is a program to help homeless people get permanent long term housing and not just gather large amounts of homeless and feed them and put them back on the street.

    thank you for bringing this issue to the public eyes and not let the city hide behind rules that are not at the benefit of the people in their community and keep them from putting a face and a name on the issue.