And then there was one

Jesus Center backs out of Orange Street shelter, but Safe Space forges ahead

Angela McLaughlin said the Safe Space Winter Shelter team is “confident in our ability to manage” and operate the Orange Street Shelter despite losing the Jesus Center’s partnership.

Angela McLaughlin said the Safe Space Winter Shelter team is “confident in our ability to manage” and operate the Orange Street Shelter despite losing the Jesus Center’s partnership.

Photo by Ashiah scharaga

For the past five months, the Jesus Center and Safe Space Winter Shelter have been working together to open a 24/7 low-barrier shelter. They launched the effort after receiving a $1 million gift from the Walmart Foundation, meant to serve the increased needs of the local homeless population in the wake of the Camp Fire.

After months of searching, the two groups found an affordable location—and a landlord got on board with the concept—at 388 Orange St., a brick-red, 15,000-square-foot, two-story building near downtown.

They were making progress on finalizing the lease when they announced their plans at a City Council meeting April 9. Public outcry emerged, and on Monday (April 29), the Jesus Center abruptly abandoned its commitment, backing out of the project.

A press release from the center stated that its board of directors was concerned about public discord over the proposed shelter and that the nonprofit would instead focus solely on its Renewal Center in south Chico.

“Although current services are at maximum capacity and there are hundreds without shelter, our community is challenged to find the space and the civic will for this kind of project,” the release stated.

But Safe Space’s members remain unswayed: They’ve pledged to open the Orange Street Shelter, which would provide 100 to 120 homeless people with a place to sleep, eat and receive health and social services (see “‘Unbelievable opportunity,’” Newslines, April 11).

Angela McLaughlin, president of Safe Space’s board of directors, said the shelter team is “confident in our ability to manage” and operate the facility. The goal is to open in August.

The concept hasn’t changed: Sobriety is not required, but guests must follow a code of conduct that prohibits violence and the use and possession of drugs and alcohol on the premises.

The shelter will require case management and provide a day center, with housing and employment resources, life skills classes and vocational training, substance abuse counseling and support groups. There will be property storage and guests will be allowed to bring their pets.

“We have a stellar team and they bring a lot of experience from a variety of areas,” McLaughlin said. “I think it’s just a matter of adjusting, and we’ll have to do the hiring ourselves rather than rely on the Jesus Center to provide staffing.”

That’s not to say the Jesus Center’s withdrawal doesn’t complicate things. While the $1 million from the Walmart Foundation is still secure, she said, it’s uncertain where a $450,000 Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP) grant from the state will end up—it was awarded to the Jesus Center for this project by the Butte Countywide Continuum of Care.

In addition, Safe Space’s expertise is in overnight sheltering. It will have to bring on a consultant or another local organization to help with the day center, McLaughlin said. The nonprofit is working on a use permit application—if approved, it will sign an 18-month lease, with the possibility of six-month extensions.

Since the location was identified last month, the community has been divided, split between those who believe in the model and see the need and others who say they are worried about safety or believe the concept enables drug and alcohol abuse. The spot is blocks from Chico State, Rosedale Elementary and Notre Dame School. Following the public announcement, Chico State President Gayle Hutchinson sent the council a letter urging the panel and the organizations to find a different location.

The Jesus Center’s board took those concerns “very seriously,” Executive Director Laura Cootsona said. “[The location] wasn’t ideal once it got as much pushback as it did.”

The press release acknowledges the importance of the project, however: “We worry that without additional services, the lives of our homeless citizens and the overall community’s quality of life will both deteriorate.”

The nonprofit still is committed to opening its Renewal Center as soon as possible, Coostona said, but she anticipates at least a three-year timeline.

Though McLaughlin said she thinks the Renewal Center will benefit the community, “that’s a long ways down the road.

“In the meantime, we’ve got hundreds of folks [who need shelter]. They’re already in the neighborhoods, they’re already downtown. The situation is better managed than ignored.”

A lack of shelter beds has been an ongoing issue for the region, and it was exacerbated by the fire. The Torres Community Shelter is full: All 160 spots are claimed and at least 10 people were on a waiting list as of last week, according to Executive Director Joy Amaro.

The Torres Shelter effectively opened its own day center after the fire, operating 24/7 with $131,000 from the Walmart donation. The facility, because it serves families with children, is limited when it comes to providing low-barrier access. It’ll continue to operate 24/7 through June 2021 with help from a $377,000 HEAP grant. Amaro said the need for additional shelter beds is vital because “there is no housing at all.”

McLaughlin says she sees the project as an opportunity to increase community safety, as it should decrease the amount of abandoned belongings and trash left along creeks and city streets and get people out of the elements.

“We still believe strongly that not only can we expand services to where we can actually start to move people out of homelessness, but … this is a win for the community at large.”