Shelter from the storm
A look inside the new Torres Community Homeless Shelter and at the fight for Chico’s homeless
Cold rain drizzles across a cloud-darkened Chico. Bursts of wind send chills through a line of homeless men, women and children walking along the sidewalk of Silver Dollar Way toward the new Torres Community Shelter.
The off-white, rectangular building sits at the end of an undeveloped cul de sac, surrounded by a muddy field, Costco’s broad gray backside, and the empty Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in the distance.
Despite the dreary weather and bleak landscape, many of these people are smiling. Unlike everyone else in Chico, they have no home to go to, no place to call their own, but still they are happy. One by one, they enter into the warmth of the sparkling-clean new building, removing their shoes and placing them in plastic bins designated by number and replacing them with flip-flops or foam sandals.
A few workers from Chico Community Shelter Partnership (CCSP), the organization responsible for the shelter, sign in residents and keep the process moving in an orderly fashion. These workers are familiar with many of the homeless clients on a first-name basis, and little jokes and sarcasm abound.
“How ya’ doin’ today, Ray?” asks a volunteer.
“Um … I seen better.” Ray chuckles.
Once inside the freshly painted interior of the all-purpose check-in room, many of the clients head straight to the coffee makers. Down both hallways are conference rooms, laundry facilities, spacious, clean bathrooms with roomy showers (one has a hand-painted tile that reads, “Think Good Thoughts") and a “break out” room for families with babies or small children.
At opposite ends of the building are the gender-separated sleeping dorms: long, wide rooms with arched ceilings and lots of windows. The men’s section, capable of housing 100 people on side-to-side cushioned mats, is rapidly filling up with the colorful scents of wet hair, tobacco and an array of body odors, while the more fragrant women’s side is busy with 25 or so women carefully arranging their personal spaces, brushing their hair or changing into more comfortable clothes.
Original CCSP Director Tim Torres, a Native American and former homeless man for whom the shelter is named, died of a brain tumor in 2001. Those who knew him agree he would have been proud of the new building and, even more, the hard-fought efforts of numerous local homeless advocates over the last few years.
“He probably would have gotten a laugh from seeing everybody line up single file into the building,” said shelter Coordinator Derrell Dinsmore, glancing out the window at the slow-moving line of Chico’s poor.
Although most Chico residents approached during the search for a site for a proposed homeless shelter were of the “not in my backyard” camp, a tireless group led by City Councilmember Coleen Jarvis (founder of the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force), attorney Andy Holcombe, teacher Mary Flynn and the Chico Community Shelter Partnership never gave up hope—even after numerous failures and resistance at nearly every turn (see sidebar).
Many involved now believe the benefits of Chico’s new shelter will prove monumental for generations to come. Now, the homeless have a reliable, centralized base to stay overnight as well as an efficient organization using assistance measures aimed at helping people who want help to themselves get off the streets.
It took contractors and builders just four months to construct the building on the 1.8-acre lot at a cost of $665,000. The plainly furnished shelter is divided into three main sections, beginning with a central recreation area (or commons room) featuring a couple of sofas where clients enter for check-in at a long administrative desk. This all-purpose room has TV viewing in the evenings, as well as a small warming kitchen to the side that is used for heating up light meals or brewing coffee and tea.
Although the shelter’s clients are used to sleeping on cushioned mats with washable, Vindex coating, CCSP has purchased 124 military-style bunk beds from Paradise Surplus that are currently being painted and should be installed by the end of April. These will open up a large amount of space in the dorms, ending the current setup consisting of long rows of floor mats.
Most of the shelter’s clients are dropped off by shuttle bus from the old CCSP office on West Seventh Street a couple of hours after their afternoon free meal at the Jesus Center. Others arrive by occasional car, bike or on foot, the last being required to enter via Whitman Avenue to avoid cutting across fairgrounds property, or else they are denied stay.
The atmosphere inside is one of relief and casual conversation, a haven where the homeless can rest—perhaps read a book, chat or smoke cigarettes outside—for a few hours before lights are turned off at 9 p.m. Bright and early at 6 a.m., they are awakened and, after cleaning up, ushered back outside promptly at 7:30 a.m., where they have the option of catching another shuttle to a free breakfast at the Jesus Center. Some simply go to their usual day haunts: places like the downtown park or one of the numerous creekside homeless camps around Chico, areas where it is hard to get away from alcohol and drugs, the occasional violent encounter or police rousting.
With the opening of the center, local churches that had been providing winter shelter on a rotating basis now have some much-needed respite, and the homeless have a plain but clean new building in which to catch a quick bite, do laundry, take showers and check with assistance programs and counselors in order to start improving their lives.
On March 19, the eve of war with Iraq, several men and women sit cross-legged around the shelter’s TV, watching the eerie green night-vision glow of Baghdad.
“Ain’t nothin’ goin’ boom!” a grizzled man with no teeth blurts to a round of “shhhhs” from the crowd. Others sit listlessly, jittering arms or legs. Some stare off in silence. A pair of teens wearing Walkmans rap to each other outside, while older adults shuffle slowly through the hallways, sipping coffee or tea.
A cursory glance around offers a particularly American vision of impoverishment: Most of Chico’s homeless people are not starving, and a few are even overweight, though in a malnourished way. There are adults suffering from diabetes or other health issues, as well as one young boy who appears malnourished but is still full of a playful exuberance befitting his age.
“Out of sight, out of mind is how the cops see it,” says Tennessee native John Pierre, 51, a homelessness veteran of more than 20 years who has broken his leg three times and can rarely work as a house painter anymore. A Vietnam medic who was dishonorably discharged, Pierre is a former alcoholic ("Cut my teeth on Tennessee moonshine,” he says) who now chooses to avoid most homeless camps to avoid temptation.
Many of the shelter’s clients receive meager financial assistance from their SSI checks ("I get mine for physical, but most of ’em are nuts—5150, they call it,” says Pierre). The way it often works, Pierre explains, is that homeless people get their checks at the beginning of the month and blow the money within a few days drinking and/or drugging ("usually crank") and staying in motels. Then they have nothing left the rest of the month.
“The shelter is good because they don’t tolerate any of that nonsense,” Pierre says in a slow, faintly Southern drawl. “You can feel safe here, and you can stay here for six months, use the services and get your life together.”
Most of the homeless who stay already know the drill. Get to the Torres Center by 6 p.m. or you’re out on the street. The rules enforced by CCSP are non-negotiable: no drugs, weapons, fighting, phone calls, leaving the premises, smoking inside, gender mixing in sleeping areas—basic common-sense rules in such a setting. Although many of the homeless may be addicts during the day, no one can enter the evening shelter inebriated (a breathalyzer at the door is used for judgment calls). And regulars are well accustomed to these rules, having stayed in CCSP-run rotating church shelters the last few years under the same guidelines.
Pierre is currently using a veterans’ service to see if he is still entitled to any benefits. His dream is to return home to Tennessee some day, build a log cabin, and retire to “raise some critters.”
“Basically [CCSP] is here to help. But they can’t help people that don’t want to help themselves. You just can’t do it—those people are comfortable with their own way of livin'.”
Just then, several EMTs roll a bewildered-looking man past us on a gurney. He has oxygen tubes in his nose. Leaning forward on his cane, Pierre raises his eyebrows and looks at me, as if to say, “Any more questions?”
Nevada City native and former truck driver Mo McGrath, 52, has light-blonde hair, icy blue eyes and tan skin. She’s been in and out of Chico for about 20 years, she says, and is relatively new to being homeless, having been on the streets for only about a year. Known among the staff as a friendly helper, she is quick with a smile, flashing her new set of bright white teeth. Over the last six months, McGrath has worked her way into an employed position at the shelter.
“I haven’t been the epitome of high-class society all my life. I’ve definitely had my ups and downs,” she says in a thick voice. “But I’ve been improving.”
She used to work for a trucking company out of Colorado as part of a driving team with her boyfriend, who’s also currently staying at the shelter. Things went sour, she says, when they weren’t paid for more than three months.
“That put a $10,000 hole in our lives, so we decided to leave that job and come back to Chico, which was a big mistake,” she says, laughing with a rich, Janis Joplin-like cackle. After losing her front teeth in an accident, McGrath took a few months off to get on Medi-Cal because she didn’t have dental insurance to get her teeth fixed ("I had to fix my teeth before looking for a job … but I didn’t know [Medi-Cal] would take a year.") Her boyfriend was not working either, having lost his driver’s license due to some over-weight tickets allegedly unpaid by their previous employer.
Things got worse when the couple lost their Chico house a year ago and wound up on the street. They found themselves sleeping in their car and Dumpster diving for cans during the days. ("We made about $25 a day, enough for gas and necessities; we were pretty good at it,” she says. “But people can make more than that—one guy I know pays his rent off cans.")
McGrath heard about the CCSP office and found out she could receive mail there. She also knew through some other homeless people about the regular rotation of churches offering shelters. When it got cold and wet, that’s where the couple went.
“We should have seen [homelessness] coming, but I do believe there are a lot of people here who were just one or two paychecks away from winding up on the streets,” she says. “Of course, there are people who this is a career for, and they have to live this way because of their lifestyles. But there are others who are here just from a set of circumstances that could happen to anybody.”
After finally getting her teeth fixed, McGrath saw a CCSP advertisement for a shelter night monitor in the paper. Even though she knew people staying at the shelter probably weren’t eligible for the job, she decided to try anyway. The CCSP informed her about another job instead as a “peer greeter” (she laughs at the title), which involves working in the office, answering the phone, helping with distribution of free clothing and information. She is currently working 20-30 hours a week, while her boyfriend is trying to work out his unemployment benefits.
“At least half of the people here probably have a desire to change their situation,” McGrath notes, adding that it is hard to find a place to live in Chico when one has no credit history or references, as is the case with so many homeless people.
This new shelter is a great option for those in need, McGrath says, because they can arrange meetings with visiting social workers and counselors on a daily basis. And, unlike in the churches, everyone has the same bed every night as well as access to showers and laundry facilities. All of this, in addition to a permanent filing system with an individual’s particulars (medical records, for example), is a measure of stability associated with the Torres Shelter that should not be underestimated.
“I don’t want to be in this shelter next season, but I would love to continue working for them,” she says. This could be a distinct possibility, since the CCSP is suffering from a lack of volunteers (as well as food donations). Eventually, the group hopes to secure funding for Phase II of its operations, another building close by to house related social services. But for now, basic shelter is most important.
All this is quite a change from the recent history of the homeless in Chico (see sidebar). One man who was there for much of the recent effort, and who inspired countless workers behind the scenes, was the popular Tim Torres.
“That Torres was a good man,” says lifetime Chicoan Dot Keyes, a gruff-looking but friendly 53-year-old homelessness veteran, who along with her husband has stayed at the winter shelters for years. “He didn’t treat us like animals. He talked to us and explained what rules he had and why he had to enforce ’em. When he died, some part of us died with him.”
By nearly all accounts, Torres was a man who walked it like he talked it.
A member of the Nomelaki Band of the Wintun Indians, Torres passed away in 2001, but not before making a name for himself as an advocate for the homeless (the CN&R selected him as a “local hero” in 1999). Once homeless and a substance abuser himself, Torres was a man behind the scenes who followed and partook in each budding advocacy organization but always kept his efforts focused on the overall cause: namely, helping to create an open atmosphere that would allow the permanent winter shelter that now bears his name.
“Tim gave us all confidence,” says Mary Flynn, board chairwoman for the CCSP and a homeless advocate for the last five years. “Part of what he taught us initially was that in order to provide shelter for people, it wasn’t just about a building. It was about opening a door, opening our hearts to the people—a willingness to do that first.”
As Torres once told the CN&R in an interview, his own interest may have stemmed from growing up in a poverty-stricken environment, when his family lived near railroad tracks in Vina. He recalled that he “never saw his mother turn down a transient looking for work or food.”
Toward the end of his life, Torres worked as a counselor at Fair View High School, coached youth sports teams and spent countless volunteer hours with the Salvation Army and each group that took over the reins of caring for the homeless during the last few years, eventually becoming the first director at the CCSP. All along, Torres believed all that was necessary was “education on behalf of the policy-makers” and the site would one day become a reality.
Keyes herself is also well known and liked among most of the current shelter regulars.
“Whenever the new women have a problem, they go to Dot, and she consolidates for them,” says Rocky Morris, a CCSP night supervisor. “The men are more proud and mostly want to handle things on their own.”
“I’m like a momma to the young ones,” Keyes says, jutting out her chin. She says the younger women come to her with various personal issues, from problems with others to questions about the numerous shelter rules.
“The shelter is actually pretty mellow,” Morris says, taking a break from checking in a resident. He decided to join the CCSP team after working as an overnight residential adviser in Craig Hall at Chico State University. Interested in social work and possibly policing, he says he felt helping the homeless better fit his non-aggressive nature.
Morris says he was initially shocked by many of the stories he encountered.
“You see homeless people all the time on the street but don’t realize that they’re just like anybody else—they have degrees, jobs, houses,” he notes. “It goes to show you can’t ever really judge anybody until you get to really know them.”
“I ain’t sure about this [Torres] place yet,” Keyes says, reflecting the cautious optimism of many of the old-time homeless regulars. “I’m still getting used to it.”
Just then, a man who looks like an aging biker with a handlebar mustache overhears us and chimes in.
“I give it a ‘B’ … for bitchin',” he says. “No seriously, it’s righteous.”
Tami Ritter, 31, is the current executive director of the CCSP and heads a staff of 13 permanent employees, five of whom are full-time. Volunteer help is crucial, she notes, and one of the many areas where the organization can always use help.
A Philadelphia native, Ritter studied comparative religious studies in New York before moving to Eugene, Ore., in the early ‘90s. After receiving her graduate degree in school counseling, she became more interested in social work after meeting and working for a quadriplegic man in Eugene who encouraged her by his own tireless example to overcome her “self-imposed limitations.”
“He taught me how to sail, how to ride an arm-powered bike [trike]—I worked with him on wheelchair sports that were amazing,” Ritter says. “He simply wouldn’t allow me to fail, and I learned a lot from him.”
After following a teacher to Chico in the mid-'90s, Ritter got a job working for a year and a half at the Work Training Center. From there, she joined Catalyst, the domestic-crisis center, for another two years of valuable experience. She then applied for and won the job at CCSP after Torres passed away.
“Tami has been such a gift,” Flynn says. “She’s brought vision, energy and compassion to the job. … She has high expectations and the keen ability to be kind, warm and yet stern and firm when she has to.”
All her work experience would quickly come to bear as Ritter soon found herself at the helm of CCSP efforts to secure funding for the new site and had to learn the tricky art of grant writing.
“She called me the night before the grant was due completely stressed,” Jarvis remembers. “It was a tough job, but we worked together and pulled it off.”
The CCSP received $500,000 in state grant money, partially thanks to experience learned along the way, when Jarvis, Rick Reynolds and Linda Huffington scored a huge coup earlier with a $750,000 grant from the state Department of Mental Health for Butte County Behavioral Health, with which CCSP often works.
Flynn says that the CCSP has learned a lot from other small towns such as San Luis Obispo, whose organizers were helpful with giving advice and encouragement on how to run a small-town shelter. And, from talking to several of the homeless people who have stayed in other areas, Chico stacks up pretty good.
“I’m so appreciative,” says Luisa Castro, a well-traveled woman from the Bay Area. “Most people here don’t realize how unique the Chico shelter is—the care that’s given, the food. I don’t think you’ll find a better shelter in a town this size in all of California.”
Other sometimes complain about the strict regulations, but that’s only natural in a group this size.
“Some of ’em just have to have some drama in their lives,” as McGrath explains it. “You’re always gonna have a few bad apples that take advantage.”
Although residents are allowed to stay for 180 days in a given year, most average about 45, Ritter says. “We really try to help people budget their money and encourage them to stay here at certain times so that they can make real progress,” she says. Still, numbers do drop at the beginning of the month, when SSI checks are issued.
“We look at ourselves as a catalyst,” Flynn adds. “An agency that brings services together. … There’s vulnerability with our clients in that their ability to access these support systems provides a challenge.”
From the beginning, Flynn says that one of the real motivating forces for her personally, besides coming from a large Irish-Catholic family that placed strong emphasis on home life—was that “Chico is such a wonderful community, to not have something like a permanent shelter seemed appalling.
“Compared to a lot of places, we are able to provide a more personalized care—and it just makes Chico a better place for it."