Lighting the way

Aurora North bridge housing in Chico provides homeless families a springboard to stability

Kristy Martin and her newborn son get cozy at Aurora North, a bridge housing program operated by the True North Housing Alliance.

Kristy Martin and her newborn son get cozy at Aurora North, a bridge housing program operated by the True North Housing Alliance.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

For three years, Kristy Martin called Annie’s Glen home, taking refuge in bushes and under bridges.

That time in her life contrasts starkly with the one she used to lead as a certified nursing assistant who was raising three children and studying to become an RN, she told the CN&R. A string of incidents upended her life and “everything spiraled.”

She was injured while working, Martin said, then lost her job and her home. Her family stayed in hotels for a while, then her car. But it was stolen and totaled, and then she had “nothing to keep my kids in a dry and secure place.”

Her children stayed with family while Martin tried to get back on track. She was used to being the strong one who took care of others, Martin said. It was hard for her to reach out and ask for help.

“I needed to learn to take that chance … of letting the community help me,” she said.

Martin, who became pregnant while homeless and was due any day, reached out to the Torres Community Shelter in November.

But she wasn’t there for long. The shelter staff invited her to live at Aurora North, a home in Chico for families operated by the Torres’ parent organization, the True North Housing Alliance. Since it opened in August, the large, fully furnished house has served 87 people across 30 families. It is a bridge housing program: while there, families work on securing permanent housing and receive weekly case management from the Butte County Department of Employment and Social Services, in addition to parenting classes (and, for some, substance abuse counseling).

On Dec. 22, Martin’s son was born. A few days later, she returned to Aurora North.

“I was able to come home with him and he had a nice Christmas tree and nice gifts,” Martin said.

The house is possible, in part, due to an approximately $110,000 grant that pays for rent, operations and utilities, awarded by the Butte Countywide Continuum of Care from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program, which allocated funding to cities that declared a shelter crisis.

Joy Amaro, executive director of the Torres Shelter and True North, said a majority of the families that have stayed at Aurora North have a dual diagnosis, with mental illness and substance use disorders. Some of them come from families that have experienced generational homelessness and poverty. The organization was keen on opening Aurora North because of an increased demand at the shelter: it consistently was taking in an average of 20 children per night, Amaro said.

“Having children in a mass congregate environment lends to secondary trauma for the children because of the experiences and what they’re witnessing,” Amaro said. A home is “so much more nurturing and much more appropriate,” she added.

Amaro has noticed that families at Aurora North “really lean on each other.” They cook together and share meals, go to parks and farmers’ markets. She added that it can be chaotic with multiple families under one roof, but staff take every opportunity to turn conflicts into “teachable moments.”

The downside is that the housing crisis, compounded by the Camp Fire, has made it incredibly hard for the families to move on to their next home. Many cannot meet rental requirements (such as making three times the rent), Amaro added, and there are long wait-lists for subsidized housing. Aurora North has a waiting list, too.

But for the families that have stayed there, Aysia Farrier, Aurora North’s house manager, said she has already witnessed the difference it has made. One mother arrived at the Torres Shelter about a year ago, pregnant and grappling with addiction and mental illness, Farrier said. Now, she is healthy and motivated, seeking housing and a job.

Farrier noted that across the board the home has helped the families become more independent. While she purchases basic supplies for laundry and cooking, the families are otherwise on their own. They have to budget properly and save up for emergencies, and are responsible for house chores.

Aurora North also has provided families a chance to heal.

Resident Jennifer Hunt said living there has helped her become closer with her 7-year-old son. They were evicted from their home in May through no fault of their own, she told the CN&R. They bounced from place to place, staying in their car, at motels and at friends’ homes. Hunt, who was recovering from methamphetamine addiction, relapsed, she said, and turned to the Torres Shelter for help.

She said she told Torres staff her son “deserves a better life and a better mom.”

Hunt was at the shelter for one night. The next morning, staff took her to Aurora North. She’s since started taking parenting classes and noticed the difference in her son.

“He’s a hugger, and for a long time we didn’t have that emotional connection,” she said. Now, he’s opening up to her again, and they regularly sit down and talk about his day, she added.

“I feel blessed every day to be here,” Hunt said.

Martin also called the home a blessing. She’s taking it one day at a time, she said, applying for housing through a variety of agencies, and hoping to reunite with her other children. She knows she “has hearts to heal.” But she has hope for her future.

“There’s a light at the end of every road … every bike path,” she said. “This isn’t the end of it.”