By SUSAN CARPENTER
It’s dusk when the Chili Van rolls into the Santa Ana Civic Center parking lot, and already the crowd is swelling. A mother and her three young children are among the homeless who have arrived early to get dinner from the mobile soup kitchen on a recent Thursday, followed by an unshaven man wheeling a bicycle packed with blankets and Paul Vandagrifft, who is roaming the parking lot in shorts and socks but no shoes.
Vandagrifft’s home: “It’s right here,” he said, patting his heart.
“I live outdoors,” said Vandagrifft, an epileptic who has been homeless for 13 years.
The 47-year-old is among the 150 or so regulars who come to the converted Ford van for the bean stew each week, along with bread, Gatorade, coffee – and clothes.
Almost 13,000 Orange County residents are without a home, according to the nonprofit OC Partnership in Santa Ana.
“Being mobile allows us to get to where the populations are,” said Ryan Burris, chief relationship officer for the Orange County Rescue Mission in Tustin, which operates the Chili Van. “Most of the people we serve don’t have transportation, so it’s easier to go to them and give them the care they need.”
The O.C. Rescue Mission, which also runs a mobile medical service, has been operating the Chili Van for three years. In 2010, it received a used Wyndham Hotels shuttle van as a donation and converted its 15 passenger seats to allow for transporting food. The area above the windshield now reads chilivan.org, and its sides are painted bright yellow with graphics in red flames and hot peppers.
Only five seats remain in the van. These days, the rear “passengers” are plastic bins of utensils. The area immediately behind the driver’s seat has been retrofit to carry as many as 400 meals for feedings that take place Mondays in Huntington Beach, Tuesdays in Dana Point and Thursdays in Santa Ana – an area, Burris said, that has the largest group of homeless and working poor in the region.
The O.C. Rescue Mission Chili Van is one of a small handful of charities in Orange County that serve the homeless with food trucks. The other is run by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Funded through donations from the Stamps Foundation in Irvine, the CarMax Foundation, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and the Mariners Church in Irvine, among others, the Chili Van served 54,000 meals last year. The O.C. Rescue Mission received a second van as a donation recently and will convert it to a second Chili Van before the end of the year.
Of the Rescue Mission’s $17.4 million budget for 2014, $6.5 million will go toward food, clothing and the expenses required to distribute them, Burris said. The need for food assistance has grown consistently since 2007.
“More families have been impacted, and that continues to grow,” Burris said. “There are also more veterans who need help. Most of Orange County would be surprised it’s not the stereotypical homeless who are down and out with substance abuse.”
Of the Rescue Mission’s 192 beds, about one-third are occupied by children.
“Our whole concept is to reach people through their need, which is hunger, and build relationships with them to get them off the streets,” Burris said.
For two years, Burris has been speaking with a man he identified only as “Mark.” His Ford Ranger pickup truck is parked each Thursday at the Santa Ana Civic Center, its rear end propped open to reveal sleeping quarters sheathed with a blue tarp. Burris has yet to convince Mark to participate in the O.C. Rescue Mission program, which offers shelter, food, clothing, medical care, education and job training with the goal of giving the homeless “a hand up, not a handout,” he said.
The Chili Van chili is cooked on site at the Rescue Mission in a large kitchen staffed with two full-time employees as well as those who live at the shelter. Every Thursday at about 3:30 p.m., the workers spread the chili into large metal trays, then load it into the van where it makes the 15-minute drive from Tustin to Santa Ana and, eventually, the bellies of the people who most need it.
The chili is “good,” said Vandagrifft, a Chili Van regular who otherwise gets his food from end-of-shift night workers cleaning the grills at local Taco Bells and Burger Kings. “I’m going to get seconds.”
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