SPIN’S EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR JEAN WEGENER IS JUST AS PASSIONATE ABOUT HELPING HOMELESS AND LOW-INCOME FAMILIES AS WHEN SHE STARTED 26 YEARS AGO.
Jean Wegener was raised in a family that believed in giving back.
“I grew up back East,” she says, “with my parents always leading by example. They considered being involved and giving back to the community one of life’s great blessings.”
Wegener came to Orange County in 1972 and settled in Newport Beach where she met Sam Boyce, owner of Boyce Advertising. He hired her to work part-time at Boyce Advertising and part-time at a nonprofit he founded in 1987 called Serving People in Need (SPIN). Later, when Sam became very ill, he closed the agency and asked Jean to take more and more responsibilities with SPIN until the board of directors invited her to become its executive director in 1995, around the time Boyce passed away.
“We were small-staffed,” Wegener says. “There were only three people, including me.”
Wegener had a daunting task ahead of her, but, as she admits:
“I’m stubborn. If you take something on, you see it through!”
So, off she went in her optimistic, determined way. Luckily, SPIN’s Street Services program was the first program it established in 1987. It was run mainly by its volunteers, who shopped for the food, prepared it and delivered it in a van donated to SPIN.
“Thirty years later, Street Services continues to provide 400 meals each week to the working poor and homeless in Orange County,” Wegener says. “SPIN volunteers distribute hygiene kits, warm clothing, blankets, sleeping mats and rain ponchos, as well as referrals to shelter and other special requests to the homeless at The Courtyard in Santa Ana, to the homeless collaborative in Laguna Beach and to the County’s first year-round emergency shelter in Anaheim.”
At the helm for 26 years, Wegener admits that raising sufficient funds to secure housing for low income and homeless people is the biggest challenge. The second is finding affordable housing in Orange County.
“Today, the average move-in cost for a clean, decent, safe two-bedroom apartment is upwards of $5,000 for the first month’s rent and security deposit,” she says.
SPIN’s housing program is called GAPP, or Guided Assistance to Permanent Placement. The program includes not only finding the apartment and paying the move-in costs, but credit counseling, budgeting, job and placement training, childcare assistance, family counseling, and more. That is the goal, for as Wegener relates, SPIN’s mission is to restore Orange County’s families and individuals in crisis to housing and permanent self-sufficiency through its long-term, proven case management and support services.
SPIN’S Director of Volunteers and Development Kim Frazier, who has been with the Costa Mesa nonprofit for 15 years, says of the success of the GAPP program.
“Ninety-eight percent of SPIN’s clients in 2016 were successful and have become self-sufficient, which is remarkable given the challenge.”
Much of that success is due to strong relationships with local landlords over the years.
“Without the trust of the property owners we work with, there would be little to no chance of placing clients in Orange County housing,” Wegener says. “Most of the clients have credit issues, few or no budgeting skills and inconsistent employment.”
Once the client is accepted into the GAPP program, they are assigned a case manager and within two weeks, the client meets SPIN’s job developer, who assesses their skills and employment history and writes a recommendation to the case manager. That recommendation might include computer training, classes to secure certifications, licenses needed to practice a trained field, etc. SPIN is able to provide those services through donations to its program.
Also of concern to Wegener and Frazier is the increasing number of homeless families with children, in particular single mothers with no support, who are living in their cars.
“Try to imagine living in a car with children,” Wegener says. “The mother tries to find a place to park close to the children’s school. Often, she doesn’t have enough money to buy gas to move the car around. The child goes to school tired, smelly, wrinkled clothes, no homework done, and must act like everything is okay. It is heartbreaking.”
In 2016, Wegener reports that SPIN helped 407 individuals (153 adults and 254 children) with housing costs, support services and case management.
Wegener is encouraged with the county’s appointment of Susan Price, Director of Care Coordination, and her efforts to coordinate services to the homeless. Also encouraging is the effort and work being done by the county’s Commission to End Homelessness, one of whose members is Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff.
Wegener says that 75% of SPIN’s funding comes from multiple grants and 25% from community fundraising. SPIN’s annual fundraiser, “Gourmet Wine Pairing Dinner,” which Frazier coordinates, is Saturday, September 23, at Big Canyon Country Club. SPIN hopes to raise $500,000.
Last year’s fundraiser was at Jewel Court at South Coast Plaza, with major support from the luxury retail center. Wegener adds that the center’s merchants have supported SPIN for four years through their holiday party.
“We are blessed to have very generous and long-standing donors,” Frazier says.
Wegener and Frazier are particularly excited about the recently announced partnership between SPIN and the Melinda Hoag Smith Center for Healthy Living, which will provide a link to housing for homeless and low-income families with children.
“The Hoag Family Foundation has funded SPIN for many years,” Wegener says. “It was Chuck Smith, Executive Director of the Hoag Family Foundation, who suggested SPIN have a presence there. So, two-to-three days a week, we have a case manager present to address housing placement and needs in the community.
Reports for SPIN’s 2016 programs are impressive. Besides the 407 individuals helped through the GAPP housing program, 18,000+ individuals received meals through the Street Service Program, 7,280 individuals were referred to housing and other services through outreach and referrals, 11,242 volunteer hours were donated to SPIN, 91% of funds directly benefited SPIN’s clients.
Wegener and Frazier admit they couldn’t do it without the volunteers (1,428 in 2016).
And, then there is the Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton law firm, who arrives every Christmas with truckloads of wrapped presents–with bows on everything!
“When the GAPP parents come to pick up the gifts, the tears are flowing on both sides,” Wegener says. “For a child who last year had no home, it is everything.”
After all these years, Wegener sums up her feelings:
“When you hear the words, ‘My whole life changed when you helped,’ you know you are doing something right.”