Shelter from the storm

Nonprofit works to provide winter shelter for the homeless

From left to right: CHAT members Leslie Johnson, Cynthia Gailey and Bob Trausch share their plans to offer temporary shelter to Chico’s homeless.

From left to right: CHAT members Leslie Johnson, Cynthia Gailey and Bob Trausch share their plans to offer temporary shelter to Chico’s homeless.

photo by tom gascoyne

A local nonprofit known as the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT) is looking to once again provide winter shelter for the homeless who, for one reason or another, do not find refuge in the 120-bed Torres Community Shelter in south Chico.

The effort began last October when the group was meeting at the Chico Peace & Justice Center (CPJC) on Broadway in efforts to create either a tent city or a more ambitious tiny-house community.

Attorney Leslie Johnson, her husband and activist Bob Trausch, and retired Enloe nurse Cynthia Gailey are all members of CHAT. The three recently told the CN&R of their efforts to shelter homeless individuals who fall through the cracks at Torres because of canine companions or not complying with other shelter requirements.

“We were working on the tiny-homes idea, of doing something about the problem in our community and our country with the number of homeless and unemployed,” Trausch said. “We were meeting at the [CPJC] and the weather turned cold and so the meetings became dual-purpose. We thought we really need to house some people now.”

Their plan involves bringing in local churches to provide shelter to the homeless on a rotating basis, an approach that has succeeded in the past. From 1998 to 2003, when the Torres Shelter was built, as many as 18 local churches shared the burden of housing the homeless.

CHAT currently has three churches willing to provide shelter for two weeks each, but they’ll need to find more to cover the last nine weeks of winter.

Last year, the CPJC itself served as the winter shelter, with as many as 30 people sleeping on the facility’s floor at a time.

“It was tight, but it was shelter,” Trausch said. “We had people who were coming in to help prepare the food, hand it out and wash the dishes. It became kind of a nighttime community.”

They also went out into the community to put the word out and handed out tents, blankets, sleeping bags and shoes.

“It was more than just providing people a place to sleep,” Trausch said. “We learned a lot about the illnesses and the reasons people weren’t going to the Torres Shelter.”

Those reasons included an inability to house pets, strict check-in and check-out times and an alcohol ban. They are looking to shelter as many as 50 per night and they’re hoping churches are willing to accept pets as well as their human companions. If not, other accommodations will be made for homeless animals. Butte County surveys suggest there are between 600 and 700 homeless people in the Chico area.

“This is just a Band-Aid, but it’s a much-needed Band-Aid,” Trausch said.

Gailey said she got involved after starting a neighborhood watch program whose efforts included cleanups in Lindo Channel.

“I became so aware of how many people were living outdoors and when that cold snap hit, my focus started changing from, ‘How are we going to get that trash out of the channel?’ to ‘Oh my God, how are these people going to survive this?’”

Trausch said he suspects there is some resistance by churches to get involved because of the bedbug infestation reported at the Torres Shelter last year.

“There’s been a real knee-jerk fear of bedbugs or lice, and we’re saying that was an isolated incident,” he said. “But we are also working on it. We are training people, making sure we have paid staff.”

Johnson said they have measures in place to guard against such problems. Those staying in the winter shelter will be handed pads and given blankets—they can’t use their own sleeping bags.

“They come in and have a face-to-face interview and we make sure they are going to be safe for themselves and others,” she said. “Their belongings will get put into a thick plastic bag and tied off. We are taking all the measures we can to prevent and allay fears because the thing of it is, if it does happen, it’s very expensive.”