Homeless no more
A Chico man uses community resources to pull himself back into the ranks of the housed and employed
Rolling over, Chuck swatted cans and bottles into graffiti-covered concrete walls under a bridge crossing Little Chico Creek. His hand grazed a heavy can. Chuck opened the beer and took a swig, spilling frothy liquid down his chest, grunting as he dried his skin with one side of his unbuttoned flannel. So, he says, began yet another day of force-feeding booze to his weakening liver.
To most people, waking up beneath a bridge sick from addiction, penniless and forgotten by society would be a nightmare, an impossibility. To hundreds in Butte County, it’s reality.
Charles “Chuck” Van Auken, 52, describes his bout of homelessness as a mundane existence speckled by run-ins with Chico police, surrounded by vagrants consumed by drugs and/or alcohol. Now he is thankful for every day he wakes up in his home—clean, healthy and safe.
“I saw my ex-girlfriend who still lives on the street,” Van Auken said. “It’s sad, ‘cuz she’s pretty much just skin and bones right now; she’s real sick.”
She wouldn’t accept his offer of assistance—"There’s nothing I could do to help her,” he said.
Behind a cigarette, Van Auken’s warm but hardened face is outlined by graying, slicked-back hair. A chipped tooth adds character to a smile that wrinkles skin around his eyes. Those eyes are dark, stripped of youth, and seem to tell his story for him. He’s led a harder life than most.
Today, bucking the local odds, he is homeless no more. Van Auken drives a Ford Ranger that’s “registered and everything.” He works five days a week. He lives in a motor home. And he credits the Torres Community Shelter as well as the Jesus Center for helping him end six years of homelessness and addiction.
While on the streets, Van Auken routinely woke up early underneath a bridge at Indian’s Camp, about three blocks from Duke’s Cork-'n-Bottle Shop on Park Avenue. He and his friends combated horrible pains in their stomach, from the addiction, by feeding their alcoholism the beer or two they had stashed, bought by panhandling the night before, Van Auken said.
After settling his stomach, he would check his pockets for change; if he had enough money, he went to the gas station to buy beer. Then he collected cans to cash in to buy alcohol.
“Hopefully, by the time we were done with our drink, the working class was getting off work,” Van Auken said. “We’d panhandle enough to have a drink until sundown, then we’d go to sleep.”
Van Auken lived on the streets because alcohol stripped him of everything he once had. He lost his job, car and girlfriend because of his alcoholism.
“Alcohol slowly pulled me down,” Van Auken said. “It became the most important thing in life.”
He moved from San Francisco to Chico in 1998 to take a job laying tile. He and his boss/friend would work and drink; “eventually, I stayed in Chico and just kept drinking.”
Alcohol drove Van Auken and his family apart. His mother in Paradise and sister in Chico had places for him to sleep and shower, but he said he so desperately needed to drink and felt so ashamed, he chose to stay on the streets.
“There’s nothing they could do to help; they felt bad about it,” Van Auken said. “I used to go to my sister’s to shower, but after a while I got too embarrassed about it.”
Then he hit rock bottom.
In summer 2003, Van Auken drove a friend’s girlfriend to the methadone clinic in Chico. His friend was out of town, so he was trying to help, Van Auken said.
“Of course I was drunk at the time,” Van Auken said.
On the way to the clinic, he received his second DUI. This motivated him to “make one last try” at getting off the streets.
“The nurse in jail said my blood pressure was so high that I needed to see a doctor or I’d have a stroke, and I was looking at about a year in county [jail] if I got any more tickets,” Van Auken said.
Alcohol was trying to kill him, Van Auken said. He needed a place to turn to.
“I knew I couldn’t stay sober on the streets, so I cut off all ties with the street people, my alcoholic friends,” Van Auken said. “I was so far down in the misery and depths of depression, I knew I couldn’t go any further.”
So he headed to the Torres Community Shelter.
Over the past few years, the community of Chico has made tremendous strides in helping the homeless, City Councilman Andy Holcombe said. In 2003, the late Councilwoman Coleen Jarvis rallied support to build the Torres Community Shelter, Chico’s only year-round emergency shelter for men, women and children. She also created the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force, which Holcombe now chairs.
“Coleen Jarvis was the catalyst to initially pull people together to work on the problem that there was no emergency shelter in Chico,” Holcombe said. “She passed away, but the shelter exists as part of her legacy.”
The shelter not only exists, it works, said shelter service coordinator Patrick Clark. Clark works long hours doing his best to help everyone who walks through the shelter’s doors.
From May 2005 to May 2006, the Torres Community Shelter housed 563 men, women and children for an average of 30 nights each, Clark said. The maximum amount of time a person can stay is six months. The shelter placed 38 percent—214 people—into permanent or transitional housing.
“The purpose of the shelter is to secure funds for many of these people who have nothing,” Clark said. “People tend to forget the homeless and treat them as a lost cause; in reality, [helping them] just takes giving them a place to sleep and connecting them with the resources that are available.”
For Van Auken, life could have been drastically different without the Torres Shelter.
“The shelter gave Chuck a place to sleep that was clean and safe,” Clark said. “When he came, he was a big and mean drunk, but you could tell he wanted to change his ways.”
He also benefited from the Jesus Center, a soup kitchen established 25 years ago by community churches. Every day, Clark said, the Torres Shelter shuttles people from the shelter to the Jesus Center for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. and picks them up after a second meal to bring back to the shelter at 4:30 p.m.
This routine was an important step in restoring Van Auken’s health. The Jesus Center had been there for him while he was on the street, he said, but food was not often a priority.
“Eating was not a daily occurrence; I was pretty sick,” Van Auken said. “I never knew a bottomed-out alcoholic who was fat.”
Last year, the Jesus Center served more than 75,000 meals, according to Executive Director Bill Such. Beyond that life-saving service, Van Auken said, the center allows the homeless to do ordinary things that most people take for granted, such as showering and using the toilet.
During his time at the shelter, Van Auken used the time between shuttle pick-ups to go to a court-ordered rehabilitation program. This was the biggest step toward recovery, Van Auken said.
“If I wasn’t eating or sleeping, I went to that 12-step,” Van Auken said. “It was that program that got me on the right road.”
Working the steps helped him stay with the shelter and off the streets. Clark said Van Auken was encouraged by everyone at the shelter to attend his meetings.
“My 12-step will always be a part of my life,” Van Auken said, “not as a blanket or a comfort, but so that I can be there for the newcomer to offer hope.”
Van Auken offers hope not only to the homeless but to the people in the Chico community who dedicate their lives to helping the less fortunate. Clark said he couldn’t do his job if success stories like Van Auken’s weren’t written every day.
“This job can burn you out. If [turnarounds] didn’t happen enough, I couldn’t process; I couldn’t do it,” Clark said.
A survey in January showed that 778 homeless people live in Butte County and 570 of them live in Chico, according to Mark Bledsoe, continuum-of-care coordinator for the Butte County Department of Behavioral Health. The survey, organized by Bledsoe, was conducted Jan. 31 by community service agencies including the Chico Police Department, Oroville Police Department, the Torres Community Shelter and others across Butte County who counted the homeless from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“As a community, we would want to know what’s happening in terms of the homeless so that we can do what’s necessary to help,” Bledsoe said. “These numbers are believed to be very low, missing people staying in motels, their cars and in overcrowded housing.”
Said Clark: “Most of the people living on the streets deal with substance-abuse problems. Ideally I’d refer these people to a detox center, but there isn’t one in Chico.”
Van Auken agrees that Chico needs a detoxification facility, where addicts get medical treatment to wean them off controlled substances. Some people get really sick when their drugs or alcohol are taken away, he said, making it hard for them to ever get off the streets.
“The people on the streets are not bad people, just sick people,” Van Auken said. “When you have cancer, they don’t throw you in jail; you need to see a doctor.”
Holcombe called a detox center “the biggest immediate need for Chico’s homeless” but said money is the reason the city doesn’t have one. The city council is busy “prioritizing limited funds,” Holcombe said.
The Salvation Army plans to build an adult rehabilitation center near the Chico airport, due to be completed in February. The center will have 50 beds—30 for men, 20 for women. It will not have a medical staff. The Salvation Army raised $5 million for the center, and that’s not enough for a detox center, said Major Robin Yant, director of the Salvation Army in Chico.
“You’re talking about doctors working around the clock—big bucks,” Yant said. “Funding is an issue; maybe they need to have one for the whole county.”
Said Clark: “Sure people can recover without a detox—look at Chuck—but for some who are so badly addicted, it is a necessity.”
Today, Van Auken is a maintenance worker for a Marriott hotel. He makes enough to pay his bills and rent at the trailer park off The Esplanade where he lives.
As sobriety and work came back, so did his family. After Van Auken reached six months of sobriety, his dad sold him the 31-foot motor home he lives in today.
“He saw I was really trying,” Van Auken said. “My family stood behind me.
“Lots of the people on the streets don’t have family to turn to,” he added. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Today, he talks to his dad once a week, visits his mother in Paradise once a week, and sees his sister on almost a daily basis, Van Auken said.
“Seeing my mother is one of the major enjoyments of being sober,” Van Auken said. “Mom just turned 83; I visit her once a week and cut her grass for her, too.
“I didn’t want her to see me die a drunk or even see me die before her.”