In from the cold
Two homeless advocate groups are placing people straight off the streets into houses
Teri and Poney Green are quick to express gratitude for the Torres Community Shelter, saying they’ve found food, shelter and showers there on many nights since coming to Chico from Sacramento six months ago. But even the best shelter is a far cry from a real home.
“We had some bad experiences that brought us to an agreement that the streets are hard, but really not much different than the shelter,” Poney explained during a recent interview. “You’re in survival mode whether you’re on the street or in a shelter, and early every morning you’re back out on the streets.”
The Greens said they ultimately left the facility because of shelter rules requiring that they bunk in separate dormitories: “Sleeping on the sidewalk is tough, but at least I can lay down next to my wife on the sidewalk,” Poney said.
That’s a problem the couple haven’t encountered since September, when they and three others moved into a four-bedroom house in south Chico rented by the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT). That same month, CHAT members Robert Trausch and Leslie Johnson also invited two more homeless individuals to move into a smaller house they own, bringing the total to seven people immediately taken off the street and placed into homes.
CHAT organizes a seasonal shelter called Safe Space hosted at rotating local churches, which begins its third year of operation on Nov. 29, and currently has enough venues signed on to operate through Feb. 28. CHAT representatives Trausch and Sheldon Praiser said the group is exploring options to house even more people, including renting or buying a 15-bedroom house.
“From the start, our main vision has been to start a tiny house village,” Praiser said. “It could have homes for perhaps 30 people, and in addition to a place to shower, do laundry, eat and sleep, it could be a real community, as well as a one-stop resource center.”
Trausch said the Chico City Council and city staff haven’t shown significant support for the tiny house plan.
The CHAT representatives said their current and future efforts are meant to lower the barriers keeping many people on the streets. Many programs and shelters require sobriety, aren’t willing to deal with mental illness, and disallow pets. CHAT operates on the Housing First and harm reduction models, which are focused on providing housing, then connecting people to services and resources to prevent a return to the streets.
Other barriers include bad or no rental history, negative credit and other financial issues, including that most landlords require first and last month’s rent and a security deposit. Some residents at the CHAT house have already transferred bills into their names to help them establish credit with utilities. Eventually, CHAT organizers want residents to assume the leases.
The Greens outlined the situation that drove them to the streets, and described the frustrations of trying to get off of them. Teri was born and raised in Chico before she moved to Sacramento, where she met and married Poney four years ago. Both worked and led a “normal” life together until, in Teri’s words, “a lot of bad circumstances prevailed and we ended up homeless.”
Their problems multiplied once they were on the street.
“We never had substance issues until we became homeless in Sacramento,” Poney said.
The Greens got sober on April 28, the day they left Sacramento for Chico. Here they were still homeless, sleeping next to an empty building near the Chico Mall. Both said they immediately looked for services, and the Jesus Center helped them land office jobs, which they prepared for each morning by “bird-bathing” at a fast-food restaurant.
The Greens’ search for services led them to CHAT, whose members believed they would be good residents in the house. Once a week, a social worker stops by to help them iron out any issues with housemates—which they said have been nonexistent—and help them connect to services or otherwise accomplish their goals.
Also dedicated to getting homeless people housed as soon as possible is Michael Madieros, executive director of Stairways Programming. Since 2000, Stairways has run a 35-unit assisted-living facility dedicated to helping homeless individuals with mental illness.
Since Madieros was profiled in the CN&R last month (see “Street warrior,” cover story, by Howard Hardee, Oct. 29), Stairways has acquired three more buildings currently being readied for occupation, with residents expected to move into two of the homes this weekend. One will house homeless people with children, and some of the second home’s residents were referred from the 6th Street Center for Youth. The final house, which will be ready in a few weeks, is a 12-bed permanent supportive housing facility; together, the four Stairways facilities will house about 60 people.
“We want to acquire all the property we possibly can,” Madieros said by phone. “Our goal is to have somewhere for people to go the minute they’re ready and want to find housing.”
Madieros added that, once people are moved into houses, “keeping them homed is the name of the game”—a goal he believes is nearly impossible without ongoing supportive services.
And at a time when some homeless advocates feel the general public and the city have grown more callous than ever toward the homeless community, Madieros’ outlook is the exact opposite.
“I know there are some issues with ordinances and other things going on, but altogether I think things are awesome,” he said. “We’re finally starting to see Chico helping and healing, and things are getting better.”