A family affair
The Torres shelter has seen a record number of families this summer
Madison groggily peeked around her room, which she shares with five of her immediate family members. The 2-month-old gingerly opened and closed her tiny fists, yawning slowly as the early evening sun shone softly through closed window shades, reminding the rest of the guests at the Torres Community Shelter that it must be sometime between din-din and nighty-night.
As her 5-year-old brother and 3-year-old sister wrestled playfully, her elder brother, a student at Chico High School, began tackling his homework.
Through a series of unfortunate events and bad timing, including an unforgiving landlord and an unexpected pregnancy, parents Tiffany and James are among the 17 families—which include 32 children—that have come to live at the shelter between May 1 and Aug. 29.
The Torres shelter is having another record-breaking summer, with more families and children depending on its services than ever before. With the continued economic fallout, people on the bottom rung of the financial ladder continue to lose their livelihoods and, often, their homes.
For Tiffany, a liberal-studies student at Chico State, and James, who is working on his master’s in psychology through the University of Phoenix, the move to the shelter was a last resort, but one that has proven a godsend to the struggling family.
“With the help of everyone at the shelter and the resources they provide, we’re definitely closer to finding our own place than we were two months ago,” said Tiffany, whose family moved into the shelter in early July.
For Brad Montgomery, the shelter’s executive director, the surge has meant he’s working harder than ever to juggle the needs of current guests while simultaneously accepting new ones. Montgomery says the influx is a sign that word of the Torres shelter is getting around. Unfortunately, it’s also indicative of the continued faltering economy.
Accommodating families has proven especially challenging.
In the winter of 2009, three family rooms were added on to the shelter, bringing the total to five. Altogether, they comprise just 20 beds. The men’s and women’s wards typically hold 70 and 30 beds, respectively.
Currently, with 110 beds occupied and the facility nearly full, the shelter has been forced to make some modifications to accommodate the large number of guests. Shelter staff and volunteers have moved beds among the men’s and women’s wards and the family rooms, for example, to maximize the sleeping arrangements.
The increasing number of families opens a whole host of predicaments and case-by-case issues to solve. If a single mom comes in with a young boy, do they sleep in a family room or the women’s ward? Should the boy use the men’s restroom alone or the women’s restroom with his mother?
Located next to Costco at 101 Silver Dollar Way, the Torres shelter opened its doors on March 17, 2003, and each year thereafter has served a growing number of guests. This year, as of June 30, the facility has been home to a record 86 guests each night on average. That’s up from last year’s record of 71 guests per night.
The shelter’s beginnings go back 4 1/2 years, to 1998, and a rotating system in which it moved from one to another of 17 different locations—mostly churches—every two weeks. A permanent residence was constructed through federal grant funding secured by the Chico Community Shelter Partnership. aided by continued planning and management by the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force, land donated by the city of Chico, along with numerous donations of labor and money by citizens, according to the Torres Shelter website (www.chicoshelter.org).
Community support is still vital for the facility.
Each day, nearby churches provide food and volunteers to help serve the shelter’s guests at dinner time, a necessity considering that the shelter relies on outside food sources to feed guests.
“Seventy-five percent of our support comes from individuals and businesses in Chico and Butte County, some in Tehama County, but individuals that are choosing to support us,” said Montgomery. “Some support us directly; others let us know what jobs they’re offering so we can let our guests know.”
Hometown Buffet and Safe Path Products, for example, are two of the local businesses that offer notifications to the shelter when job openings are available.
Although the facility provides shelter and a nightly meal, its primary goal is helping its guests make the transition to self-sufficiency. Each adult resident works with a service coordinator from the shelter who sets up a case plan that outlines goals—like finding employment—to help him or her get back on track, including a timetable for how long that should take to accomplish. Guests are encouraged to put effort into meeting their goals during the day, while they are out of the shelter.
In May, the Chico City Council approved the allocation of grant funding that will help build a kitchen and dining hall at the shelter. That expansion is expected to take at least another year. But with the facility’s booming population, further expansion is sorely needed, Montgomery said.
“A good solution to the growing homeless population is right here; it’s us and the agencies we work with, but it’s a matter of being able to receive the additional funding that we need,” he said.
Montgomery also knows that just because a resident leaves the facility does not mean he or she won’t be back.
“If we had more funding, I would also like to stay connected to the people who leave here in a good way or move into an apartment, and continue to provide services to help make sure that they stay stable,” Montgomery said. “When people just no-show and we don’t hear from them, that’s not a population I’m very excited about chasing down.”
While Montgomery struggles to cope with each new problem arising from the shelter’s burgeoning population, he’s buoyed by the guests whom the facility helps to find an economical foothold.
Tiffany, the mother of four, acknowledged that life at the shelter isn’t easy for a family.
All six must be out the doors by 6 a.m., unless on bed rest or with the permission of their service coordinator. The family cannot return until 4:30 p.m., keeping them on the go during convenient nap times for the little ones.
After dinner, though, which starts promptly at 6 p.m., the family enjoys one another’s company for a few hours. They watch television, hang out on their beds, get some fresh air under the awning out back, and enjoy art and game activities that volunteers set up, before Baby Madison leads the way to dreamland.
While James expects to graduate this summer, Tiffany has another two years to go. That requires James to watch the children, keeping him from spending as much time as he’d like searching for a job.
Though it’s not an ideal situation, Tiffany remains positive about her family’s future and is extremely grateful for the help of the shelter.
“I think it’s great here. They have a lot of family-oriented rules,” she said. “It’s a very family-friendly environment, and I really appreciate that. We’ll be back on our feet soon enough.”