Jim Palmer, CEO of the Orange County Rescue Mission in Southern California, specializes in planning for every kind of contingency: bad weather, the flu bug, law enforcement crack downs, donor cutbacks, economic malaise and changing bureaucratic policies governing the homeless. Nowhere in his playbook did he account for a serial killer.
The killing spree which targeted the homeless in Orange County began Dec. 20 in Placentia and took the life of James Patrick McGillivray, 53. The second victim, Lloyd Middaugh, 42, was found in Anaheim on Dec. 28. Two days later 57-year-old Paulus Smit's body was found in Yorba Linda. The final victim, John Berry, 64, was discovered in Anaheim on Jan. 13. According to police, the knife attacks were brutal. McGillivray reportedly was stabbed at least 40 times, and each subsequent attack became more vicious.
"We were praying about what our role in this was," Palmer said. "The first thing was to call it what it was. It was pure evil."
The suspect in the case, arrested after witnesses saw him attacking the fourth victim, is an Iraq war veteran, who family members said frequently reached out to the homeless. His own father is among those calling the streets home, living out of a truck in Fullerton, Calif.
Palmer, who has spent years working on homeless issues and also manages homeless programs said the attacks were not only brutal but also hard to predict. The killing zone, about a five-mile radius and covering three cities, featured no large shelter or homeless gathering areas.
"You are already dealing with a population that is very vulnerable, very broken," he said. "They are outcasts in society. They are invisible. Most people don't even see them. They don't even feel human, and then they become the target of a monster. That's a horrible situation."
Palmer said his staff became concerned after the first killing and, by the time Middaugh became the second victim, they feared they had a serial killer, although police had not yet linked the murders.
Immediately the mission staffers began praying together as they tried to discern how best to reach out to the homeless. A Google search for similar circumstances in other communities and how the rescue missions there might have provided help proved futile.
"We couldn't find anything," the CEO said. "We were trying to not only get them off of the street but also wanting to give them something, some sense of peace, to empower them in a sense."
It was through those prayer sessions that the idea emerged to create emergency kits with flashlights, whistles, bus passes to get to shelters, and tips on how to stay safe. Sunwest Bank and Disneyland Resorts stepped up to provide $5,000 each to pay for the 1,200 kits.
"They were really thankful," he said of the homeless. "We were hoping we were making a difference, lifting up people's spirits, having a good influence."
Still, Palmer said it wasn't until he saw one of the kit's recipients telling a TV news reporter that the whistle made her feel safe that he felt some relief.
"That's when I went 'Wow, we really did something good here," he said. "It was the Lord whispering in our ears, saying 'Go, do this.'"
Palmer said he is hoping that public attention generated by the killings and the arrest will elevate awareness of homelessness so that more can be done to get the homeless off of the street.
Other rescue missions are joining the effort. Herb Johnson, the CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission, said he's now working on getting donors to fund the $50,000 he needs to fully staff his ministry's First Steps program.
Although 85 percent of the men and women receiving services from the San Diego mission are in long-term transitional housing, First Step was launched as a temporary shelter program dealing with those who have immediate needs. The 26 or so beds in that program are used to screen the homeless for suitability for the long-term program. But, because of budget constraints, the program only operates on weeknights. Those staying in First Steps become homeless again every Friday morning.
"We don't have enough money to run that program on the weekends because it's a three-shift program," Johnson said. "That's always been very, very distasteful to me, but that's the reality of being a nonprofit."
After reports of the serial killing surfaced, however, Johnson determined he needed to move some mountains so the mission staff consolidated beds in the long-term facility and moved some of those in the First Step program into the long-term shelter, opening up more beds for those on the street, a maneuver he called a "double checker move."
"I've been so emotionally connected to what has happened in Orange County that I'm searching around so we can find a donor to fund it on the weekends," Johnson said. "It seems terribly tragic to have space here and not man it on the weekends."
Lost in much of the discussion over the killings and subsequent arrest, Johnson said, was the fact that the suspect was a veteran.
"Twenty percent of the homeless in San Diego are veterans," he said. "It's just a tragic case. This didn't have to be Anaheim. It could be here. It just happened there."
A violent world
Palmer and Johnson agreed that violence is not new to the homeless population since many of those living on the streets are dealing with anger, substance abuse and mental health issues. In can make for an explosive combination when you factor in the survival instinct, in which friends can become prey for the next fix, meal or warm shoes.
"We are surrounded by this kind of threat every day," said the Rev. Andy Bales of the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, which serves one of the state's most notorious homeless populations. "In Skid Row we are always in the midst of this kind of threat."
He said during the same time the media was focused on the serial killing, four to five unrelated stabbings occurred in Skid Row.
"It's been our biggest mess in the United States," he said of the area. "Even with a serial killer loose on the streets of Orange County, it's still probably safer there."
Palmer agreed, saying Orange County's homeless are spread over a wide area.
Even those trying to serve the homeless can become victims. In mid-January Bales said he came across a 400-pound man attacking a woman over a drug debt. When he intervened the man turned on Bales, who found protection inside of his locked vehicle.
"The homeless are the most vulnerable population on the face of the earth," said Bales, who has lost numerous homeless friends to street violence. "They are out in the open with no protection. Homelessness itself can sometimes be a violent experience. Everyone is trying to defend themselves."
Adding to the matrix are street thugs who are looking for an easy mark. Youth gangs have been known to rove the areas using their fists and baseball bats for some entertainment.
"They are targeted because they are vulnerable, they are invisible, and (the attackers) think they can get away with it because nobody will care," Bales said.
Churches, ministries responding
All three ministry directors said they have noticed a positive trend in recent years as more Christians, churches and other organizations are becoming involved in serving the homeless.
"We need to do everything we can to love and reach out to them to get them under a roof and to safety," Bales said. "The best way to do that is through friendships and relationships."
Finally, Bales said he hopes enough resources can be generated to render his own ministry obsolete.
"Through foundations, churches and networks we need to be keeping people from becoming homeless in the first place," Bales said. "We need to be a society that doesn't tolerate a precious human being sleeping on the streets."
The Association of Gospel Rescue Missions has developed a multi-media Bible study campaign that examines the issues of poverty and homelessness.
"'Invisible Neighbors' is not your typical Bible study, but rather a resource designed to compel people to action," said association president John Ashmen, who wrote the curriculum said. "It pushes readers toward continual discovery and intervention in the lives of the poor, and specifically encourages and empowers them to be advocates in their neighborhoods, and to ultimately participate in rescue mission ministry."
The 18-section study guide blends narrative, history lessons and current statistics with important biblical perspectives.
In addition to the book and DVD, a Web site and Facebook page help participants from different parts of the country connect with each other and share their insights, activities and stories. For more information on the study, visit www.invisibleneighbors.org.
How you can help
Rescue missions offer tips for people wanting to serve the homeless:
Plug into an existing nonprofit ministry Volunteers are always needed and each mission has developed procedures that provide for the most efficient care without enabling the person to remain on the streets.
See the homeless Most of those on the streets feel invisible. A warm smile or a hello might be the only one they get the whole day.
Mobile pantry Stock cars with non-perishable food items, toiletries, socks and underwear, which can be easily handed to someone on the streets.
Warm coffee Drop off some cups and a Starbucks to-go coffee container. The warm coffee is a blessing on cold winter days.
Cashing in Giving cash directly to the homeless is not recommended. Instead, provide monetary donations directly to the local rescue missions. They use tested screening processes to ensure those receiving the services are most likely to transition off of the streets.
For more ideas or information from the rescue missions, visit Orange County Rescue Mission www.rescuemission.org, San Diego Rescue Mission www.sdrescue.org, Union Rescue Mission www.urm.org or the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions www.agrm.org.