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Homeless, Not Helpless : Boisterous Breakfast Club Members Volunteer to Aid Community


Ten minutes into the Sunday morning breakfast meeting and any illusion of parliamentary procedure already has been shoved aside.

One man is talking about cheap wine and lazy nights on the railroad tracks that slice across the Ventura coastline. Another is recounting a fistfight outside a drop-in center for the homeless on the city's waterfront.

Yet another boasts of a giant beach bash he staged two nights earlier after trading in his food stamps for red meat and booze.

They are all talking at once. Clearly, chaos has set in and is threatening to take root.

Finally, George Willis takes control. The big bear of a man, a onetime heroin addict, is the elected leader of this loose-knit collection of street people.

He produces an aluminum baseball bat and bounces it on a table. He means no harm. In the Breakfast Club, this is as close it gets to a call to order.

Members of the fledgling group--a small band of homeless or unemployed men, and occasionally women, who volunteer for a variety of community service projects--don't obey the crack of a gavel or Robert's Rules of Order.

Dues are $1 a month or two food stamps. Meeting rules are simple: No smoking, no drinking and no attending just for the free scrambled eggs and hot coffee.

"The problem is, a lot of homeless people don't want to change. A lot of them don't want to work full time," said Willis, a 33-year-old former football standout at Camarillo High and Oxnard College.

"But this club is for homeless people who just want to do something for themselves by helping other people out."

Reform is not necessarily the focus of the Breakfast Club's agenda.

Members harbor no illusions of rescuing those who like their drink or their transient lifestyle. Such lofty goals as full employment or rejoining the mainstream are reserved only for those who want to pursue such things.

The club's primary mission is to help homeless people feel better about themselves by giving them an opportunity to perform good works for others.

So far, club members have harvested food for the poor in the fields of Ventura County. They have helped renovate homes in downtown Ventura, and regularly spruce up a two-mile stretch of the Ventura Freeway.

Soon, they will lend a hand in rebuilding earthquake-damaged homes in Fillmore.

"The idea is to give them a chance and see what they do with it," said Les Goldberg, chairman of the board of directors for the Commission on Human Concerns, a Ventura County agency that sponsors the group.

"I always tell them they're one step above everybody else," he added. "Anyone can go to work, but volunteering is special. "

It was Goldberg who came up with the idea of the Breakfast Club while trying to figure out how to do more for homeless men in Ventura. Homeless families and single women can find shelter and services, Goldberg said, but homeless men often are left to fend for themselves.

He wanted to give them a chance to help themselves by helping others.

So he tried to get a couple of homeless volunteers into Food Share's gleaning project, which feeds low-income residents by collecting the fruits and vegetables that farmers cast aside to rot.

But he was stopped cold by a Food Share requirement that gleaners carry some type of insurance against injury. That was when he formed the Breakfast Club, soliciting donations to pay workers' compensation premiums.

"They do a really good job for us," said Jim Mangis, executive director of the Oxnard-based food program.

"They come out and work right alongside all of our other volunteers, doctors and engineers, postmen and plumbers," Mangis said. "The reality is that the same thing applies to all 500 of our volunteers: The first step toward believing in yourself, and building your own life, is helping somebody else."

Some members have gotten off the street and into housing. Others have worked their volunteerism into paid jobs, such as gardening and janitorial work.

The group also holds yard sales and sells used items at the Ventura College swap meet to support its efforts.

"You've got to give them a chance to do," said Goldberg, noting that the club has collected about $2,000 since its first meeting last summer, more than enough to cover workers' insurance. "That's what the Breakfast Club is about. Give them a little assist and let them carry the ball."

Some people pick up the ball and run with it. Scott Arnold is among them. He and Willis were the first to join the gleaning project, recruited out of their beachfront homeless encampments.

After Arnold graduated from Thousand Oaks High School in 1982, his life tumbled out of control, pushed by a crack cocaine addiction.

His wife and daughter left him. The next thing he knew, he was living on the beach. He had been there for more than two years when Goldberg found him in August.

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