Chico’s seasonal winter shelter in desperate need of volunteers, facing closure without community support
It’s 6:30 Tuesday night (Feb. 2), and the first busload of lodgers is about to arrive at Life Church—this week’s location for the Safe Space winter shelter.
Volunteers—everyone pitching in, as the Chico Housing Action Team and this program to help homeless Chicoans are wholly volunteer—put finishing touches on the multipurpose room that will sleep 50 on the mats and a few cots that line the floor in an orderly pattern.
Katie Knipp, a nursing student from Chico, organizes the linen bags stowed in a rear corner. At the opposite end, in the kitchen, Karla Albert and five others (mostly fellow congregants from Bidwell Presbyterian Church) set out the courses for tonight’s dinner: chicken, stuffing, salad, rolls and brownies. Soup, simmering on the stove, comes out later.
Others tend to the beds. Social worker Dan Everhart, president of CHAT’s board and a founding member of the group, rolls his wheelchair to the dining area by the kitchen counter, stopping by a circular table to survey the scene. When guests arrive, he may be needed for a quick counsel or tension de-escalation.
Not tonight: Everyone files by Knipp in smooth succession, finds a place to call home for the night, then queues up for supper. “Thank you!” is a common refrain. In the background—above the piano music of Robert Bowman, the retired Chico State professor who’s quietly set up an electronic keyboard—lilt compliments to the cooks.
This is no anomaly, either, even though Safe Space is a “low barrier shelter” that places minimal restrictions on those seeking refuge.
“I think overall it’s really amazing that you have 50 people sharing this small space and getting along pretty well,” Everhart said.
The mood is light, even though some volunteers and guests know a dark cloud looms over Safe Space. The program, scheduled to run through the end of the month, may have to shut down after this weekend due to a shortfall of volunteers.
Rick Narad, one of the three shelter operation coordinators (along with Deanna Schwab—Councilwoman Ann Schwab’s sister-in-law—and Robin Tripp), told the CN&R that as of Tuesday afternoon, 104 of the 196 job slots for next week remain open.
Safe Space needs seven people at its intake location, Calvary Community Church at 13th and Broadway streets, and the rest at the shelter spot. Overnight spots—two volunteers each, 7:30-1:30 and 1:30-5:30—are the hardest to fill, but help is needed across the board because of illness and attrition.
“This week we are making do,” Narad said. “Next week terrifies me.”
If the shelter ceases operations early, CHAT will have to deliver heart-rending news to people who rely on Safe Space to shelter them on winter nights. This development comes on the heels of the Torres Community Shelter, a “dry facility” for homeless Chicoans, announcing it had enough funding to continue operating only another six to eight weeks (see “Sanctuary in need,” Newslines, Jan. 28).
“The fact that Torres is at a critical point at the same time as we are is just total coincidence,” Narad said, “and for totally different reasons.”
Safe Space’s 2015-16 schedule doubled last winter’s—a full three months versus around 50 days—and exponentially expanded upon the inaugural few weeks two winters ago.
“The people who have been volunteering regularly [this winter], it’s been going on two months now where they’re doing it every week,” Narad continued. “They have other things in their life, and they need to consider those, too.”
CHAT made an initial public outreach, he said, and since November has drawn from that collection of volunteers, along with reinforcements from churches.
“When the shelter is actually operating, we don’t have a lot of time to go out and do recruiting,” Narad added.
With the word out, he hopes to see some new names on the list this weekend; moreover, he hopes these fresh faces will enable current volunteers to move into supervisory roles that also have become vacant.
Narad first participated in conjunction with his church, Chico Friends Meeting (Quakers), though his motivation to volunteer is as much professional as personal. He’s a Chico State professor in the Department of Health and Community Services, with a background in emergency medical administration.
“There’s no doubt that we’re saving lives,” he said. “By getting people out of the cold, out of the wet, we’re saving lives, and that is a very strong motivator for me.”
Mike Strong, who has been both a volunteer and a guest at Safe Space, agrees.
“It’s crucial that this place keeps going,” he said. “It’s taking care of people that most people would rather brush off…. This place saved my life—saved my life.”
As Strong spoke, it was 7:45 p.m.; most everyone off Tuesday’s second and final bus had finished eating, apart from the few who accepted the kitchen crew’s offer of seconds. By 8, the room quieting, 50 guests had begun settling in for the night of shared shelter.
“It’s surprising to many people to learn that poor people are a lot more generous than rich people, generally speaking,” Everhart said. “There’s a lot of research to support that: People are looking after each other in ways that are pretty admirable.”
Volunteering exposes him to this “inspiring” phenomenon, and to a lot more as well.
“It’s important to recognize that a lot of us are only a short distance away from where these folks are, and whatever disadvantages led ’em there are usually not by choice,” Everhart added. “I think it’s helpful to get to know people who are different from yourself—or you think are different—and to hang around some pretty amazing volunteers and do something that everybody agrees is fundamentally virtuous.”