Bishop John Harvey Taylor and new resident Maggie Nobel, with other dignitaries, cut the ribbon to officially open Santa Angelina Senior Housing Community at Church of the Blessed Sacrament, Placentia. Photos: Janet Kawamoto

Alexa Washburn, chief development officer for National CORE, project developer, accepts a citation from Kevin Kirwin, mayor pro tem of the City of Placentia.

[The Episcopal News] “Welcome to the Family,” sang the children’s choir – and several hundred state, county, and local faith, civic and community leaders, housing activists, neighbors, and church members cheered and applauded May 13 as Bishop John Harvey Taylor and other dignitaries officially opened the Santa Angelina Senior Housing Community with a joyous ribbon-cutting ceremony at Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Placentia.

For Maggie Nobel, a Santa Angelina resident who addressed the gathering, the welcome and her move to an affordable apartment on the church’s campus felt like “true paradise. I stand here before you to let you know that places like Santa Angelina are not just good for the community, they’re good for our country and for so many people,” said the former librarian and mother of a disabled son.

“Over the last year, my son and I lost our home of 20 years. We had to live in a motel because my Social Security payments were not enough for the apartment,” she said. “I wasn’t on the street like some, but I was still homeless. I know from experience that affordable housing means less stress and a better life.”

Students from the Children’s Learning Center at Blessed Sacrament Church sing “God Bless America” and “Welcome to the Family” at the May 13 dedication.

Seniors are among the fastest-growing population of individuals becoming homeless. On May 8, 2024, Orange County officials released a point-in-time report indicating a two-year increase of 28% in overall homelessness, with a total of 7,322 unhoused persons, 10% of whom were seniors.

Bishop Taylor takes a selfie with Orange County Supervisors Katrina Foley and Doug Chaffee.

Taylor has called the 65-unit Santa Angelina project “an amazing collaboration involving many partners that began with a congregation’s curiosity about its neighbors and willingness to take a leap of faith and throw open their doors.” He has pledged similar efforts throughout the Los Angeles diocese.

“Now, thanks to them, see what the Spirit of God has accomplished. In our six-county diocese of 133 churches, we want to do [affordable housing] in 25 or 30,” Taylor told the gathering, praising Blessed Sacrament’s leadership, members, neighbors, and community partners. “If we keep at it, we as an Episcopal community can make room for 5,000 of our neighbors.” (Taylor wrote about the grand opening event on his Facebook page and the Bishop’s Blog.)

Junior Warden Tom Johnson, who helped supervise the Santa Angelina project, introduces members of the construction crew.

Among the Blessed Sacrament parishioners gathered for the event were Tom Johnson, junior warden, and Ned Bergert, senior warden and president of Deanery 9, who together spearheaded the project, drawing on Johnson’s long career in construction. Johnson thanked the construction crew, which has worked over the past 18 months to complete the extensive project, which includes a total 65 units of housing.

Currently, five other affordable housing projects are in active pre-development or development on church properties in the diocese: at: St. John’s Cathedral in Los Angeles; St. Anselm’s, Garden Grove; St. Michael’s, Anaheim; St. Ambrose, Claremont and St. Mark’s, Downey. Another project, Orchard View Gardens at St. Joseph’s Church in Buena Park, is nearing completion and is expected to open in late 2024, according to the Rev. Michael Bell, director of Housing and Business Development for Episcopal Communities and Services, who supports churches as they move toward affordable housing initiatives.

Additionally, St. Michael’s Apartments opened in July 2023, offering 50 affordable apartments to residents at the St. Michael’s Episcopal Ministry Center in Riverside, and another 15 congregations are in “very early-stage exploration and discernment,” Bell told The Episcopal News.

Barrett Van Buren, rector of Blessed Sacrament Church, holds up an icon of Angelina, a Serbian Orthodox saint known for her care of the sick, the poor, widows and orphans.

Church-community cooperation: an idea whose time has come

Bell said Taylor’s vision for affordable housing on church land is gaining traction, and he is receiving inquiries from around the country about similar partnerships, “What we’re celebrating today is worth celebrating,” Bell said, noting ECS’s more than a century-long history of providing housing for those in need. “It’s the beginning of another 50, 60, or 70 years of changing lives, being good neighbors to each other, and learning what it feels like when we come back together.”

Through ECS, Blessed Sacrament began partnering in 2017 with National Community Renaissance or National CORE, a leading nonprofit affordable housing developer, which manages more than 10,000 units nationally. Santa Angelina represents the nonprofit developer’s first project with the Los Angeles diocese, according to Alexa Washburn, National CORE’s chief development officer.

While there was initial resistance to the project, designed for those who earn less than 60% of the area median income, the community came together in a win for everyone, she said. Twenty-one of the apartment homes are reserved as permanent supportive housing for unhoused seniors or seniors at risk of becoming unhoused. A 1,500-square-foot community center serves as a hub for events, supportive services, and programs.

The two-story separate apartment buildings wrap around the church, which remains the campus’s focal point, Washburn said. “Santa Angelina is now a model for so many other churches throughout California. They can see how you can open your heart, open your land, your campus and expand your ministry to include affordable housing.”

Placentia Mayor pro tem Kevin Kirwin called the grand opening “a milestone for the city” while acknowledging he initially wasn’t really thrilled about the project. “And I wasn’t alone. I live about a hundred yards from here. But the nice thing is, we worked together – and that’s how government should work; it should bridge the gap between developers and residents.”

Noting the rise in homelessness in Orange County, he added: “This will provide 65 beautiful apartments. It’s not just shelter, it’s an environment where seniors can thrive. Everybody worked together to make it happen. It’s a great thing.”

Orange County Board of Supervisors vice chair and 4th District Supervisor Doug Chafee called the project an example to “churches all around the state that have surplus land to step up and share what they can do, as part of their mission.”

“You’re both housing people and preventing others from falling into the agony of becoming homeless. That’s the true joy here,” Chaffee said. “The future is bright and beautiful … certainly for those who are going to live here.”

Hafsa Kaka, California Governor Gavin Newsom’s senior advisor on homelessness, said the apartments are an example of partnerships the governor’s office is encouraging throughout the state.

Hafsa Kaka, California Governor Gavin Newsom’s senior advisor on homelessness, said the apartments represented an amazing example, the epitome of Newsom’s intentions “to see local governments coming together, everybody from the private sector, to philanthropy, to faith-based communities, to counties, to cities, and really doing a regional coordinated effort” to alleviate the homeless crisis in the state.

The Rev. Barrett Van Buren, Blessed Sacrament’s rector, said, “the importance of community cannot be overstated. We are all in this together … desiring the very best – and Santa Angelina is a prime example of that, truly a beacon of light.”

Other partners participating in the ceremony included: National CORE President Mike Ruane; 5th District Supervisor Katrina Foley, chair of the OC Housing Finance Trust; Vice President Rosalind Ross, Chase Bank Community Development Banking; Century Housing Senior Vice President Josh Hamilton; CalOptima Health CEO Michael Hunn and Ian Kemmer, Assistant Deputy Director, OC Health Care Behavioral Health Services.

Janice Caballero has lived near Blessed Sacrament Church for 45 years. Both curiosity and appreciation drew her to the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “It is so nice, what they’ve done with the property,” she said, noting the design complemented existing neighborhood dwellings. “This is a really attractive place.”

Members of the diocesan community were also in attendance, including the Rev. Cindy Voien of St. Joseph’s Church in Buena Park, where the 66-unit Orchard View Gardens Affordable Senior Housing project is well underway.

Greg Marshall, a member of the St. Ambrose Church committee overseeing an affordable housing initiative in Claremont, said he attended the ceremony in support of affordable housing and “as part of a tremendous learning process.”

The Hope through Housing Foundation will provide additional supportive services at Santa Angelina, including programs and events focused on employment, social connectedness, and health and wellness as well as connections to outside resources to break the cycle of generational poverty, according to Alyssa Cotter, vice president.

“Right now, in America, seniors are experiencing an epidemic of isolation. When people are isolated, they receive all sorts of challenges to their health and well-being. Our goal is to cultivate a sense of community that reinforces the ideas of Santa Angelina as home, a place where everyone is seen and respected,” she said.

A friend helps Maggie Nobel, a formerly homeless woman now resident at Santa Angelina, step off the stage after she told her story to guests at the grand opening.

Additionally, onsite service coordinators are available to meet with and connected residents to other resources.

Joining the Santa Angelina community has placed Noble closer to her son, who suffers from muscular dystrophy and whose deteriorating health forced her to place him in an assisted living facility. “My life is turning around,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about living on the streets. I don’t have to worry about the dangers of being homeless. I don’t have to live in that hotel that was so far away from my son.

“I am forever grateful to be here,” she added. “I’m so glad to get to be here with many kinds of residents and workers. I have a safe place to walk my dog. I’m much closer to my son, allowing me to visit more often. I know from experience that affordable housing means less stress and a better life. The partnership between National CORE and the Episcopal Church to make this apartment complex is a blessing. This community is a work of great charity. And I’m so glad that I and many others can benefit from such thoughtfulness.”

The new Santa Angelina apartments wrap around the existing Church of the Blessed Sacrament, the Children’s Learning Center, and the new parish hall, seen at right, which will serve both the congregation and the community as a gathering space.