Breaking down barriers

Torres Community Shelter announces wet shelter program

Brad Montgomery has been director of the Torres Community Shelter since 2009.

Brad Montgomery has been director of the Torres Community Shelter since 2009.

Photo by Ken Smith

As executive director of the Torres Community Shelter, Brad Montgomery has faced his share of moral quandaries in determining how to best address the needs of the homeless people the shelter serves. A large source of that turmoil is the organization’s traditional status as a dry shelter, meaning that guests must maintain sobriety in order to stay there.

“This job hasn’t changed my values, but it’s been interesting how often I find those values in conflict with each other,” Montgomery said during an interview last month. “I have a responsibility to keep kids and families safe here, but I also have a responsibility to not let people die in the streets. From time to time, those two things have been at odds.

“Falling off the wagon is a natural part of recovery, but in the past we’ve had to suspend people [from the shelter] for relapsing. Some sober up and get right back in the program, but others fall into a deep hole and we might not see them for weeks or months.”

Montgomery is hoping a recent sea change in the shelter’s policy will alleviate that problem: The Torres Shelter has been dry since it started in 1997, but since late June has offered a wet shelter program for those who don’t meet the sobriety requirement.

The changes were announced on Tuesday (Aug. 16). In a follow-up interview, Montgomery said his staff kept the roll-out under wraps to cause minimal disruption to existing shelter services. He also wanted to gather preliminary quantitative data and give it a trail run.

Montgomery said challenges included maintaining safety, as the shelter houses several families. He also didn’t want to interfere with other guests in recovery, as sobriety is still required in the shelter’s primary program. The wet portion thus far includes five beds separated from the larger population.

The program has served 27 individuals to date, all but eight of whom Montgomery reported have gotten sober and returned to the primary program.

The changes at the shelter coincide with broader changes in how society is addressing homelessness. While programs that hinge on sobriety were once the norm, a newer model known as harm reduction/housing first—aimed at providing housing before dealing with mental health and addiction issues—has grown more prevalent in recent years.

In fact, federal funding to combat homelessness in the form of the Emergency Solutions Grants Program offered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has added stipulations in recent years that housing can’t be contingent on barriers, such as sobriety. The Torres Shelter depends heavily on that funding source and applied for two grants totaling $330,000 in July, but Montgomery said that’s not what spurred the change.

“We’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time, and when we finally figured out a good way to do it, we took action,” he said.

Montgomery said the wet shelter program will expand in the near future, and he eventually wants to see a separate facility and staff dedicated to its operation. He said it’s too early to peg a timeline or projected costs of such a project.

“If the public really gets behind this, supports it and lets us know this is what our community wants and needs, then we’d like to make it happen sooner than later,” he said.

Chico City Councilwoman Tami Ritter, who served as the Torres Shelter’s executive director from 2000 to 2005, said Tuesday that she approves of the change.

“It’s been proven that efforts to combat homelessness are much more successful when you remove that kind of criteria,” she said. “We’ve found that when we focus on getting individuals into a safe place first, it’s much easier to then address those issues that can contribute to keeping them homeless. It’s important to break down those barriers.

“I’m also glad they did it because that’s the direction state and federal funding is going. The Torres Shelter provides a valuable service to our community, and anything they can do to improve that service and ensure that organization continues is good for Chico.”