Helping hands

Council approves projects to aid the homeless and at-risk youth

Major improvements are in store for the Torres Community Shelter in the coming years—and new data show they are much needed.

“It saddens me we need to expand the shelter because the need is there,” said Chico Mayor Ann Schwab, in reference to this year’s homeless census. Conducted in late January and released last week, the survey by the Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care revealed a 20 percent increase over 2010 in the county’s homeless, a large majority of whom reside in Chico. (See more on the census figures in Sifter, on this page.)

Schwab was speaking in her roles as a member of the Chico City Council and the Redevelopment Agency, both of which convened during the regular council meeting Tuesday evening (May 17) to consider approving the allocation of $700,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to the Chico Community Shelter Partnership for expansion of the south-Chico shelter located on city-owned property.

At the same time, the panel weighed whether to allocate $320,000 in low- and moderate-income housing funds to Youth for Change, to pay for the development of an apartment project to serve transitional-age youth—including homeless youth and young people coming out of the foster-care system—on the same city-owned property south of the shelter on Silver Dollar Way.

“The project meets the needs of some of the most vulnerable youth in the community,” said James Coles, the city’s housing manager.

Coles gave a report on the projects, which would require a minor land division and lease agreements with the city, describing the stresses on the shelter and the upgrades planned at the site. In 2010, the 8-year-old facility served an average of 77 people per night. That’s the highest level of service since the shelter opened its doors in 2003, and this spring’s average (97 people per night) is higher than the numbers experienced during the same time period last year.

He explained that the facility currently operates without a kitchen or dining room, requiring volunteers to bring in pre-heated meals each day and guests to eat on a patio or stand inside the building during cold weather. The expansion will include the construction of a 2,000-square-foot dining room, a 1,300-square-foot commercial kitchen and storage area, and a reception area with office space and showers.

The Youth for Change project, which currently has no facilities on the property, includes the construction of Valley View Apartments, a 15-unit complex. The 20-year-old nonprofit would own and operate the housing development. Coles pointed out that 128 of the homeless folks surveyed in Chico are between the ages of 18 and 24 and that about 380 young Chicoans use the services of the 6th Street Drop-In Center, a downtown facility that provides services for homeless youth ages 14 to 24.

Coles noted that the plan includes Youth for Change using the shelter’s kitchen for job-training services. To that end, the two organizations are currently discussing a compensation arrangement.

Councilwoman Mary Flynn, who has a long history volunteering for the Torres shelter, admitted she originally had concerns about the commingling of the facility and the youth housing. However, pointing out that the apartments will serve some of the population currently served by the shelter, she now sees the value of the collaboration.

And the upgrades at the shelter itself are greatly needed. “We’ve reached capacity for that building to function well,” she said.

Councilman Bob Evans voiced concerns about Youth for Change, saying he’s received “unsolicited calls” about the organization’s “aggressiveness of getting kids in the program and reluctance to getting them mainstream.” In other words, the nonprofit’s clients are key to its attaining funding, he said.

Jeff Thacker, chief operations officer of Youth for Change, denied that the organization holds anyone back. He noted that the nonprofit’s drop-in center has a good history of pulling young people out of homelessness.

Councilman Scott Gruendl also responded to Evans’ comments, noting that there are more young people who need services such as those offered by Youth for Change than there is money to pay for those services.

In the end, Evans joined the rest of the panel in unanimously approving the expansion of the Torres shelter. He was the lone holdout in three subsequent votes allowing the Youth for Change project to move forward.

In other council news, the panel, in a 4-2 vote, with Schwab and Councilman Mark Sorensen dissenting, eliminated a condition on Café Culture’s use permit that prohibited the venue from selling alcohol. That modification, however, includes the conditions that the business is barred from subleasing its facility and must clear its parking lot following amplified-music events. (Councilman Jim Walker, whose brother owns property near the café, recused himself during the vote.)