Back in the 1980s a local parish priest began to reflect on what could be done to help the homeless population of Orange County. From those musings he soon gathered a small group of friends working to help the homeless, which resulted in Mercy House, an organization that now has locations in Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
Since it was founded in 1990, the mission of Mercy House has been to serve the immediate needs of the displaced and connect them to services to lead them out of homelessness and into permanent housing, always with the inherent dignity of each individual in mind. The original Mercy House served 10 single, destitute men. Today the organization’s assistance programs serve more than 6,000 annually and more than 65,000 have been helped over the past 25 years.
Father Jerome Karcher, currently pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Huntington Beach, was an associate pastor at St. Norbert Church in Orange back in 1987 when he was first touched by the urge to help the homeless. The concept of Mercy House began to take shape when he was moved to a new assignment at St. Anne Church in Santa Ana.
“There I noticed a number of people who were homeless with no real options in their lives,” Father Jerome says. “This moved me to form Mercy House Living Centers as a nonprofit organization that was nondenominational.”
In late 1989 a small article appeared in the Diocese of Orange Bulletin about Father Jerome’s work. Soon after, he was contacted by Patrick Powers, who had read the article. “Long story short,” recalls Father Jerome, “is that his family foundation gifted Mercy House with a $25,000 grant that allowed me to hire Larry Haynes, who is with us these 25 years later.” Haynes is still with Mercy House, in fact, as its executive director overseeing all of the organization’s programs.
When asked what has made the biggest impression on him over his 25 years of working with Mercy House, Haynes says it is the spirit of hope that seems to flow through every aspect of the organization’s work, even among those they are helping. “No matter how hard thing have gotten for the clients, they don’t give up hope,” Haynes says. He has been especially touched by the “sacrifices of the single moms to make a better life for their children.”
Among its expansions, Mercy House now extends a helping hand to homeless mothers and children at Regina House, adults living with HIV and AIDS at Emmanuel House, and late last year ground was broken on Home Front Camp Anza, a project designed to help veterans and their families who have fallen on hard times. Camp Anza, scheduled to open in early 2016, has special meaning for Haynes. “That’s my neighborhood!” he enthuses when noting that the project is being built in the working-class area in the city of Riverside where he spent his childhood.
Mercy House could not do its work without support; not only cash donations, but also assistance from many foundations, cities and corporations, among them HomeAid Orange County, the Orange County Children and Families Commission, John Laing Homes, Munro’s Furniture, and Creative Design Consultants, to name just a few. “We are humbled by the support of so many good people,” Father Jerome says.
And then there are the volunteers, the people dong the hands-on work of Mercy House. “They are unbelievable,” says Haynes. “They have an infectious sense of joy even in the midst of human tragedy. It’s a pure form of giving.”
Marking the 25th anniversary of Mercy House gives Father Jerome and Larry Haynes a chance to reflect on the achievements of a quarter-century and to look ahead to the future. “The development of Mercy House over 25 years has exceeded anything I ever expected,” Father Jerome says. “At the beginning I only had my eyes set on one facility, but God had other plans. In His providence Mercy House has become much more, touching the lives of thousands each year.”
When he looks to the future, Haynes sees a dynamic organization guided by an unchanging focus. “I expect us to be the same kind of organization, but I could not have predicted some of the things we have accomplished,” he says. “I hope our future work will be more in the context of collective rather than singular action, collaborating with other nonprofits. We could possibly have three or four more projects in the coming years, but nothing would surprise me.”
The unchanging focus of Mercy House may be best described by Father Jerome. “We each want to fit in and be accepted,” he says. “This is how we help those who come to us. We help them feel welcomed as they rediscover their worth and value.”