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Mia Ferreira: Improving lives and providing shelter for those less fortunate, one warm smile at a time 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Aga Stuchlik

Mia Ferreira ups the happiness quotient in any environment she enters. But her easy-going nature, and sunny smile belie an earnest yet caring take-charge administrative style. Just ask the residents at the Alternative Sleeping Location (ASL).

Mia is the Program Manager, effectively running the ASL homeless shelter in Laguna Canyon.  With a rotating staff of ten, Mia supervises, handles case management, and coordinates efforts with Friendship Shelter for the 45-60 “guests” who show up every night at the ASL.

“People come to us very broken,” says Mia. “A lot have serious mental illness. Their families may have written them off; they’ve been overlooked. I try to engage and show them I care, remember their names. 

“They’ve been treated like ‘clients’ and now they are ‘guests.’”

Mia Ferreira

In such an emotionally charged situation it’s easy to see what a difference a kind-hearted and engaging leader can make. One example is a guest that Mia was able to connect with through her unique sensibility: It was a flower that brought them together.

“There is one guest who is seriously mentally ill. She sits outside all day. She’s earthy,” said Mia. “Every day I brought her a gardenia from my garden – and because of that I’ve gotten to know her, and gain her trust.”

Family, school, work

Mia’s relationship to Laguna and the South County has come full circle. As a youngster growing up in Capo Beach she first had dreams of going to college far from home. Of course, she’s no dreamer, so she made that happen. “I swore I wouldn’t come back,” she jokes. 

After undergrad in Hawaii, she migrated over to the east coast and pursued her Master’s in Public Health at Emory University. Proudly an activist for social justice, she fondly recalls living for a time in Chicago while busy with anti-war protests. Mia was back on the west coast, working up north in Salinas with a homeless organization – a soup kitchen, work and arts co-op when her dad became ill. She wanted to help him out and has since found herself back on home turf.

Every step of the way Mia has been involved with social service agencies, working with the poor and homeless. It’s just in her nature. She laughs, “Crazy people love me! It feels good. I’m still smiling.”

And she’s going to school again on top of everything else she’s doing. At night she’s at class earning a second Master’s Degree, this one in social work. “I wanted to learn more clinical skills – learn more ways to engage people,” she says. “How do you help people effect change in their lives? I see it happen all the time. I’m getting better and better at it.” No doubt!

Her time, her mantra, “Family, school, work!”

Finding balance

Of course there has to be balance in one’s life when faced daily with the needs of the mentally ill and suffering. Mia meditates, and has a spiritual practice. She also loves to go biking with her mom, and go with her partner and 10-year-old stepson to Salt Creek Beach for his surfing, or to his soccer games. She loves the outdoors, the beach, and creating artwork – mosaic and block printing.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Mia is the always-cheerful program manager at the Alternative Sleeping Location

In her own life, as well as those she looks after, she says it best: “I believe in the possibility for everybody to lead a thriving life.”

Laguna has come to own a special place in her heart. “I’m so impressed with Laguna Beach,” she says. “The only [South County] city that has a homeless shelter!

“So many people in the community have commented to say ‘thank you for doing this important work,’ but anybody can do it – be kind to the homeless.”

The journey

For Mia Ferreira it’s about the journey more than a destination, though there have been a few recent blue-ribbon outcomes for ASL guests. “We just housed 44 people in permanent housing,” said Mia happily. “We screened over 90 people starting eight months ago, and got 44 into housing – apartments all over Orange County.”

That’s quite an accomplishment, considering it was a countywide application for HUD grant monies for just 100 housing units. Applicants had to be screened and identified as both chronically homeless and with a disabling condition.

“Meeting people where they’re at, non-judgmental, and loving…” is the way Mia describes the ASL approach to connecting with their guests. In this way they are able to start a journey toward wellbeing, and even success. Success came to one recently. “One guy did it!” said Mia. “He got a Pell grant to go to school. He did it and has a job now.” That makes her smile even brighter.

At work at the ASL office

Mia’s work at the shelter gives her joy, and that joy is infectious. “I have a strong sense of belief that my happiness is tied to other people’s happiness,” she says. The fact that many of the ASL guests stop by to say hi, and just want to hang out with her is testimony to her approachable leadership style. She is a friend to all. And her friendship adds a measure of dignity to the lives of the ASL guests.

The destination

 “People should work in jobs they would volunteer in,” Mia says. “This work is about wanting to live my values.” 

Clearly Mia has found her life’s passion in helping the needy in whatever way she can. But the way forward for the people who rely on the ASL is something Mia thinks about every day. “We need more affordable housing options in Orange County,” she says.  “A lot of folks have only minimum wage jobs.” 

For those who are homeless with no jobs, as many are in Laguna Beach, there is also the matter of what becomes of them during the day. For this Mia would like a magic wand. “If I had a magic wand I would create, in South Orange County, a day center. A drop-in center where there would be mental health and substance abuse services, case managers, and activities – things to do during the day.” 

Musings? Not likely for long. If anyone can create a magic wand to improve the lives of homeless people, it is Mia Ferreira.

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Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Maggi Henrikson, Sara Hall, Stacia Stabler and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists.

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