CHAT’s Housing Now program enables formerly homeless individuals to help themselves—and each other
John Davis is equal parts curmudgeon and comedian, given to coloring even the darkest details of a life hard-lived with wry wit. His humor is obviously appreciated by his roommates, several of whom gathered on the porch of their Chapmantown home Monday morning (Nov. 13) to share a few smokes, stories, gripes and laughs before getting on with the day.
“I still got my name on a dumpster down by the tire store,” Davis said with a crooked smile as he pulled on a Pall Mall perched between nicotine-stained fingers. “It’s reserved.”
Davis came to live in the house—one of 11 homes that provide housing for a total of 40 individuals run by the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT)—about two years ago, after spending more than a year on the streets. He’d developed a bleeding ulcer and was severely ill when the organization brought him into the home, and is currently recovering from surgery to remove a tumor in his stomach. “These days, I’m not sure when I’m not having some serious medical problems,” he quipped about his health issues.
Davis set all jokes aside when asked what might have happened had CHAT not intervened: “I probably woulda died of exposure like so many people are doing these days,” he said. “I had a couple people I knew from the streets who died like that.”
Protecting the unhoused from that fate is one of the driving factors behind CHAT, an all-volunteer, grassroots organization formed in 2013, said founding member Bob Trausch, between visits to two of the homes on Monday. The houses are part of a CHAT program called Housing Now.
The group also runs Safe Space, a low-barrier seasonal shelter that began when the Chico Peace and Justice Center opened its doors for 16 days in December 2013 to provide a warm place to sleep for up to 30 people each night. Safe Space has grown exponentially since, and last year hosted 246 individuals—averaging around 50 per night—overnight for 12 weeks at churches rotating on a weekly basis. The shelter is currently recruiting volunteers and gathering materials to operate that program for the same time frame this year, beginning Dec. 10.
CHAT’s latest program aims to create a tiny house community for homeless individuals called Simplicity Village, an effort recently given some support by the Chico City Council’s agreement to further look at its feasibility.
With the exception of a small grant to provide mental health help for some residents, Trausch said CHAT runs entirely on donations and monies raised through fundraising campaigns and special events. The group is currently holding a fundraiser to benefit Housing Now called the Let’s End Homelessness Campaign. A group of CHAT founders have committed to matching funds donated through Dec. 31, and a letter from CHAT announcing the fundraiser says the campaign is meant to make up for funds formerly raised through the North Valley Community Foundation’s annual Annie B’s Community Drive, which was discontinued last year.
For Housing Now, Trausch explained, CHAT works with compassionate rental owners to house several people in each home. Members undergo an application process and pay a small fee to participate in the program, which covers housing, utilities, Internet and even some food regularly donated by sources like Trader Joe’s and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Trausch said the program’s participants represent a wide cross-section of the homeless population, including many who struggle with addiction and mental and physical disabilities. CHAT provides wrap-around support, ensuring clients can make it to doctor’s appointments, receive their medication regularly and connect to other needed services. CHAT volunteers visit on a weekly basis to check in and troubleshoot any situations that arise, and Trausch said the program eschews any one-size-fits-all model to meet the needs of residents, giving each house a distinct character.
“Some of the houses want to be dry and clean and sober and we certainly support that,” Trausch said. “In others, maybe other things have happened in people’s lives that led them to be unhoused. We try to adjust each house to fit the people there.
“We try to get a sense of where a person or couple would fit in, then we go through an interview process with the people in that particular house to make sure it’s a good fit,” he continued. “We try to develop families, so we really want a good fit.”
The concept of forming families, and of addressing wide-ranging needs, was evident during visits to two CHAT houses that morning. Three of six residents at another house, a beautifully maintained Craftsman in north Chico, shared the widely different circumstances that led to their homelessness. A man named Alan said he’d struggled with alcoholism and trouble with the law; Mark Fowler has medical issues, and was evicted from an area retirement community where he said his privacy was regularly invaded; and Susan Gannon had trouble finding employment after taking a decade away from her career as a social worker to care for her sick mother.
They also shared some of the progress they’ve made since finding stable housing, and Trausch gave details about other program participants who’ve kicked addiction, reunited with their children, found employment, received much-needed medical, mental and dental attention, and otherwise improved their individual situations. Gannon said her housemates may even have saved her life several months ago, when they found her nonresponsive due to issues with her kidneys and called 911.
“We’re all still dealing with a lot of things,” said Alan, whose housemates refer to him as “the glue” holding that house together and their go-to guy in times of crisis. “We have trauma from our past, and other issues going on, but this has been such a blessing. We draw our strength from each other to get by. Sure we have our ups and downs, but that’s family.”