Religious leaders in North Orange County are hoping a low-interest, mini-loan program will help lift families out of homelessness and prevent others from sleeping on the streets or in cars. 

And they’re hoping the efforts will ignite similar programs throughout the county. 

Deacon Tom Saenz of St. Juliana Falconieri church in Fullerton said existing payday loans – often called predatory loans – compound hardships families already face. 

“The goal is to not give a 400% loan to people in need,” Saenz said at Thursday’s kickoff event. 

The religious leaders say the efforts, known as the Michael Clements Mini Loan Program, will help pay for things like rent, food and other critical spending at a time when housing costs are soaring and workers in various industries fight for better wages. 

[Read: The Summer of Strikes]

Father Dennis Kriz from St. Philip Benizi’s church said the $100,000 they have on-hand as starting money could help 20 to 30 families in North Orange County.  

In an interview, Kriz said the 2% mini loan program can help families who “maybe 20 to 25 days a month they live in a motel, and then the other five or so days they sleep in a car.” 

“This is for them,” he said. 

Click here for details about the program.

In order to qualify, people must show proof of income. They don’t have to be religious or a member of any of the churches heading up the program: St. Philip Benizi, St. Mary and St. Juliana Falconieri.

Kriz, who regularly assists homeless people in North Orange County and details their monthly deaths in Voice of OC community opinion pieces, said he hopes the efforts will spark others to roll out similar programs. 

“We think that this could snowball,” Kriz said. 

The Notre Dame Federal Credit Union will administer the loans and people will be given financial literacy lessons and a credit report once the loan is paid off – along with a $50 bonus. 

“We want to teach people how to take care of themselves,” Saenz said. 

At Thursday’s kickoff event in the Hope Center in Fullerton – a homeless services center – Brea Police Chief Adam Hawley said the program will help families he and his officers see struggling daily.

Hawely, who heads up the North OC Public Safety Collaborative aimed at curbing homelessness, said services like the mini loan program could prevent people from sleeping on the street and shift police department focus to other areas.  

Brea Chief of Police Adam Hawley speaking at the unveiling of the Michael Clements Mini Loan Program on Sept. 14, 2023. The loan program, piloted by Fullerton’s three Catholic parishes, is named after the Fullerton activist known for helping farm workers, working-class Latinos and other at-risk populations. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

“My mission in life and my job is to put us out of a job,” Hawley told religious leaders. “We’re looking forward to seeing how we can connect people to prevent them from falling into homelessness.” 

In an interview after the kickoff event, Hawley said local governments, agencies and service providers should consider similar programs.

“It would be a great area of focus,” he said. “Over the months and years, our homeless population is constantly increasing.” 

In 2022, county officials counted 5,718 homeless people – 3,057 of whom slept on the streets. 

But that number is likely much higher since those counts are just a snapshot of a couple nights every other year. 

In 2019, CalOptima estimated 10,000 of its members were homeless throughout Orange County. At the time, agency officials said they worked with various homeless organizations and checked their members’ address – or lack of an address – to determine if they were homeless. 

And earlier this year, the Orange County Grand Jury found there could be as many as 20,000 homeless children in the region. 

[Read: Orange County Tallied 722 Total Homeless Kids Last Year, Real Number May Be 30,000]

Kriz and Hawley said homeless people aren’t just the ones on the streets: it could be people couch surfing, sleeping in cars, or living in and out of temporary housing and shelters. 

Hawley said a major problem is when people get into a shelter, then into temporary housing – but then end up right back on the streets because there’s no place for them to go.

[Read: Despite Motel Conversions, Orange County Remains Far Behind Housing Goals

“We’re just chasing ourselves in a circle here,” Hawley told Voice of OC, adding that permanent housing needs to be a priority for Orange County. 

Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.


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