Thomas House has come a long way since 1987, when it placed its first homeless family in a three-bedroom apartment in Garden Grove.
The non-profit has vastly expanded over the past 30 years, and now owns two adjacent apartment complexes tucked away between SanTana and Little Saigon in the Buena Clinton barrio. They have a committed board and staff, and the resources to accommodate 18 families at any given time. But Thomas House offers much more than just a hot meal and a cot to rest on for the night. They directly address the culture of poverty by offering counseling, parenting classes, and personalized financial goals to clients. Their mission is to “provide a safe, supportive environment and the resources necessary for homeless families with children to remain together while empowering them to become independent and self-sufficient.”
There’s a cheery smile across the face of executive director Natalie Julien as she shares the latest Thomas House success story: a family of six who was living out of a car is now preparing to transition into permanent housing, debt-free and with enough savings to pay two months’ rent. They found jobs and rose to middle management positions quickly—a stable foundation to grow upon.
"They've been here for about 18 months," she says. "Both parents really focused on saving money, getting their family back in order, and just really worked hard to better their position."
But as the group prepares to celebrate 30 years, it's still weathering a rough stretch. Donations have been down for the past couple of years—not just individual contributions, but also those from city funding, grants and corporate partners—that have led to cutbacks in staff and programs. A neighborhood Christmas party that used to draw thousands is now limited to just Thomas House residents, past residents, and volunteers. A program that helped at-risk families with rent money is no more. The shelter is seeking food donations from the public to lessen its grocery expenses.
“That was a rough year, my first year,” says Julien, who started in 2015. “But since that first year, we’ve really been able to grow.”
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Julien emphasizes the support the community provides. "If they come here, they can see the heart of Thomas House," she says. "Any time someone does an activity, they have an opportunity to interact with the families.They can bring their whole family and see the difference they're making. They either give us money to be able to function, donate things for the apartments, or volunteer to do things here."
And she remains hopeful. Thomas House plans to employ a neighborhood patrol service starting in July. They're also looking to purchase another apartment complex where families would be on their own but close enough to lean on Thomas House for moral and educational support.
Julien attributes the organization's resilience to the support of founder Mary Selz and original board members and volunteers, who keep in touch and help when needed. "Having that connection keeps us focused on why we were created," she says. "Also, the staff that has been here forever, having that continuity to make sure we're staying focused on our mission...We get people that come and say, 'Wow, this is an organization I want to support,' because they can see the impact we make and they can be part of the process."