In from the cold

Safe Space orientation meeting offers insight into massive volunteer effort

Volunteer Deanna Schwab briefs potential volunteers on the importance of treating guests with respect and acceptance.

Volunteer Deanna Schwab briefs potential volunteers on the importance of treating guests with respect and acceptance.

Photo by Ken Smith

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Volunteering for the Safe Space Winter Shelter can be challenging, a fact Deanna Schwab didn’t gloss over as she addressed more than three dozen potential and returning volunteers gathered at Chico’s First Christian Church on Monday (Nov. 28). She began the orientation meeting by noting that, on average, four of the 50 homeless individuals the shelter aims to serve each night likely will suffer from mental or physical issues requiring special attention.

“I hope those numbers don’t scare you, though,” she continued, offering some levity. “If you had 50 teenagers at a sleepover, I guarantee there’d be four of them you’d keep an eye on. And if you took a busload of seniors to Reno for the day, I guarantee there’d be four people on medical watch.”

Schwab is a second-year shelter volunteer and sits on the steering committee for Safe Space, the seasonal shelter overseen by the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT). Prompted by a brutal cold snap, the low-barrier shelter began in December 2013 and that year provided hot meals and warm beds to as many as 30 people for 16 nights. The effort has expanded since, and this year hopes to feed, house and provide hospitality for 80 nights starting on Sunday (Dec. 4).

The shelter is housed at rotating local churches, each of which donates space for a week at a time. All guests must register at an intake site, Calvary Community Church on Broadway. They are transported to the shelter site for the night, and then to the Jesus Center around 7 a.m. each morning.

At the orientation, Schwab presented a glimpse of the monumental volunteer effort that goes into pulling off Safe Space’s mission on a nightly basis. There’s a team of about 25 “core volunteers” experienced with shelter procedures as well as 24 nightly volunteers needed for various positions. Altogether, she said it takes about 30 people to run the shelter each night.

Schwab said Safe Space’s most immediate volunteer need is for drivers with vans or trucks to transport people and belongings from intake to the shelter site, and to move the operation each Sunday. She also mentioned some of the expenses, including about $400 weekly for guest bus service provided by the Work Training Center, $250 weekly for laundry, and $2,400 seasonal liability insurance. As the shelter lacks storage space for clothing or other items to give guests, Schwab said organizers prefer cash donations to cover those expenses and incidentals, such as over-the-counter medications to treat cold symptoms and other common ailments.

One of the biggest changes at Safe Space this season is the addition of a six-person Crisis Intervention Team. The shelter organizers plan to have at least one of these personnel, all of whom have undergone de-escalation training and have experience dealing with homeless and/or mentally ill individuals, on-hand every night.

“[Until this year] if someone was having a mental health situation, it would usually result in a call to the Chico police,” Lisa Currier, a mental health advocate overseeing the crisis team, said by phone. “I feel like it’s a lot more compassionate and productive to have someone who’s better trained to deal with those situations.”

Back at the orientation, Schwab ensured new volunteers that they wouldn’t be put in positions where they’d have to make tough decisions. She noted that, though the shelter has refined its rules and procedures over the years to run more smoothly, volunteers are always learning how to better serve guests.

“We’re not perfect; we make mistakes,” she said. “I like to say Safe Space is like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and 950 of those pieces are always moving. The only pieces that aren’t are our guests. And they don’t care if every piece of paperwork gets done or not or how perfectly everything is run.

“They care about the fact they need a place to sleep. Keep your focus on that, because that’s what really matters.”