Program that allows homeless men
to sleep in churches is safe, president says
Published: October 12, 2012
THE CHARITY that has provided overnight
housing for homeless men in local churches for more than two
decades defended the safety of the program days after a
23-year-old transient said she was raped by one of its homeless
On Oct. 3, a woman told Pacific Grove police she was sleeping
outside St. Mary’s church on 12th Street when she was assaulted
at about 4 a.m. by one or more men at the church who were
staying there as part of I-HELP — a program that arranges for
homeless men to sleep in various local churches and synagogues.
While police haven’t named any suspects, or even confirmed they
were I-HELP recipients, Eric Johnsen, president of the board of
Shelter Outreach Plus, which sponsors I-HELP, said the program
has been safe in its two decades of operation.
“This has never happened before,” he told The Pine Cone. “The
program has been going for 20 years, so when something like this
comes up, we take it extremely seriously.”
Johnsen said that the men in the I-HELP program, who stay at a
different church on the Peninsula every night, are supervised by
a “monitor,” who is another homeless man I-HELP holds
responsible for making sure the other men don’t come and go from
“Shelter Outreach Plus has a number of safety and security
measures in place, one of which is to ensure that I-HELP
participants are appropriately monitored during their overnight
stay and are not allowed to come and go at-will,” Johnsen wrote
in an Oct. 5 letter to local churches.
The monitor spends the night in the church with the homeless men and “sleeps in a strategic place so they can tell if someone goes in or out,” Johnsen said.
However, because monitors also go to sleep around the same time
the other roughly two dozen men do, Johnsen said the system
isn’t perfect. “If someone were to want to go outside for some
reason, they could,” he said. “But it would be hard to do that
without disturbing the other guys.”
During the night of the alleged rape, the men slept — as they
usually do — in St. Mary’s Edwards Hall, which contains a rear
door that opens directly to a wooden deck where the woman had
been sleeping and where she told police she had was raped.
However, Johnsen said nothing seemed out of the ordinary that
night. “I-HELP overnight monitors said they had not noticed
anyone missing away from the church that evening or early
morning of the incident,” he said.
Police investigation continues
Meanwhile, Pacific Grove Police Cmdr. John Nyunt told The Pine
Cone Tuesday that representatives from I-HELP have been very
cooperative during the investigation. Nyunt said he is trying to
interview all the men who were at the church the night of the
“We want to be sensitive to the victim’s needs,” he said.
“However, we also don’t want to jump to any conclusions
concerning our potential suspects.”
Nyunt said he didn’t know whether forensics technicians or
medical personnel had collected any semen from the scene and
declined to say whether the woman had vaginal injuries. However,
the woman did have an abrasion under the left eye.
Johnsen said I-HELP is intended to be a six-month program to offer homeless men shelter while they achieve certain self-improvement goals, like getting a job.
“We have an expectation they do certain activities to get them
back on their feet and be self-sustaining,” he said.
Each of them has to register for the program, which creates a
file for each man containing his personal information. At about
5 p.m. each day, a bus picks up roughly 25 to 30 men on Del
Monte Boulevard in Monterey, and they’re searched for drugs,
alcohol and weapons.
From there, they’re transported to one of the 30 churches on
If the men don’t have their own blankets and pillows, they’re
usually provided once at their destination, they’re often fed
(St. Mary’s has a large refrigerator stuffed with food for the
men) and sometimes given clothing. Some churches offer Bible
“It’s lights out about 9 or 10 p.m.,” Johnsen said. “Sometimes
the church will have someone stay there [overnight], sometimes
About 10 congregations in Carmel and Pacific Grove take part in
the I-HELP program.
Meanwhile, Johnsen said Shelter Outreach Plus has also offered
to help the woman find shelter. “We have told the police that
one of our women’s shelters will be able to take her in, if and
when needed,” he said.
Shelter Outreach Plus provides a variety of services, including
emergency shelter and housing for temporary homelessness for men
The woman was taken to Community Hospital of the Monterey
Peninsula several hours after the alleged attack after she told
St. Mary’s senior warden Bruce Obbink what had happened. She
then underwent a Sexual Assault Response Team examination at the
hospital and was released Wednesday night.
Monterey County Rape Crisis Center executive director Clare
Mounteer wouldn’t say whether her organization helped the woman
but said it’s protocol for police to contact the center anytime
a sexual assault victim is taken to a hospital for a SART exam.
The group also offers individual and group counseling and lets
victims know what shelter and other services are available to
“Our role is to be with the person during the exam and make
sure all their questions are answered,” she said.