LIVERMORE -- Christian Holm is turning 50 this year. For the past three years, he's been living on the streets of Livermore, hauling all his earthly belongings along on his bicycle. He has his spots outside where he sleeps, but on many a cold night, he eats and stays at the Livermore Homeless Refuge, the only shelter available to him as a single man.
"To have it available is amazing," Holm said. "It does a lot. It kind of centers you."
In its fourth season, the refuge has served more than 100 homeless people, up to 25 on an average night, mostly men from Livermore and Pleasanton. It is the brainchild of Doug Quadara, the senior pastor at Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Livermore, who saw the need for a shelter for homeless men after learning of several deaths and illnesses.
"When it gets to that point, you start thinking 'what can we do?' " Quadara said. "It gives them a place to at least get out of the bad weather."
The refuge rotates every three weeks among three different Livermore churches -- Vineyard, Holy Cross Lutheran and Asbury United Methodist -- and moves to First Presbyterian Church every weekend. From Nov. 1 to the end of April, it's open whenever the temperature drops to less than 40 or there's at least a 20 percent chance of rain.
Doors open for check-in from 6 to 8 p.m., and guests are provided with a home-cooked dinner and simple breakfast from Livermore-based Open Heart Kitchen. Everyone gets a meal, even if there are not enough beds for all. The work requires four nightly shifts, with at least two volunteers on each shift. The refuge is not yet a nonprofit and has no paid positions; most of the 25 core volunteers come from various Livermore churches. Spearheading efforts are Bob and Donna McKenzie, who work at the shelter every night and are considered by many of the men as their second parents.
"We don't look at this as a service organization," said Bob McKenzie, 77. "We look at this as a ministry."
Once checked in, the homeless men talk, watch movies and play cards until the lights are shut off at 10. They're given a sleeping bag, a mat and a spot on the floor, affording them a warm, dry place to lay their heads for the night. Those who are drunk or disruptive are turned away.
Bob's wife Donna, whom the men have lovingly nicknamed "The Taxidermist" -- because she's always trying to keep them stuffed -- said she felt called to help the homeless and considers them to be family.
"They're good guys," Donna McKenzie said. "They're real people. Being homeless does not define them."
The refuge does allow women, but a vast majority are men. Some have chosen the lifestyle, while others have faced challenges with joblessness, drugs, alcohol or mental health, Bob McKenzie said. A few are working but have been unable to make ends meet.
Frank asked to not have his last name published for fear of losing his job. He works full-time in Livermore to obtain medical coverage for his wife, who contracted a terminal illness and was given just months to live. Everything he makes, he said, is sent back to his family to pay for medical costs. For the past few years, he has been a regular at the refuge.
"I didn't know it was going to drag on so long," he said. "I just can't afford to have any extra expenses for myself."
When the shelter is closed, Frank said he usually sleeps in his truck in parking lots of 24-hour businesses. The refuge, he said, gives him a place to rest where he won't get harassed. The churches hold regular sleeping bag and clothing drives and offer showers three days a week. Members of Cornerstone Fellowship Church have also set up a closet to provide clean socks, underwear and clothes.
This season, according to Operations Director Sandra Chesterman, the refuge had to start over with funding due to last year's bankruptcy of the Tri-Valley Community Foundation. Chesterman, a Livermore stay-at-home mom, said she didn't realize the city had a homeless problem until she started volunteering at the Open Heart Kitchen.
"There are so few shelters in the area that provide this service," Chesterman said. "It's definitely in high demand; we're seeing more people and people you'd never think were homeless."
Chesterman said the refuge has tried to work with the city to put in a permanent shelter at city-owned vacant buildings but so far has run into barriers. Many of the homeless, like Rich French, 55, said they would like to see the city step in and provide a year-round facility for men. French, a lifelong Livermore resident, became homeless last summer after the house he was living in was foreclosed on. French said he drops by the refuge for a meal and social interaction.
"It gives you a place to stop and collect your thoughts," French said. "It's where you go to figure out where you're going to go next."
French said he was staying at a homeless encampment near Interstate 580, but recently had his tent and supplies taken by the city, making the shelter all the more important to him.
"I used to be self-sufficient, but now I don't know what to do," French said. "This is the only thing keeping me from being really frustrated."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
To volunteer or make a donation to the Livermore Homeless Refuge, visit livermorehomelessrefuge.org. Donations can also be made by writing a check to the Asbury United Methodist Church and specifying it for the refuge.
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