Michael Madieros’ guerrilla tactics offer a unique take on solving Chico’s homeless problem
Thaddeus Brown was making sure his buddy’s bags didn’t get swiped, keeping an eye on them outside Chico City Hall while the owner, who was also homeless, was off arguing with his girlfriend.
That’s when Brown, 19, was approached by a hulking figure. Based on the newcomer’s nearly head-to-toe tattoos, flat-billed baseball cap and long goatee, Brown assumed he also lived on the streets. He was wrong. The man introduced himself as Michael Madieros from Stairways Programming and offered Brown shelter, help toward long-term independence and, most immediately, a ride.
“I didn’t believe it at all,” Brown said during a recent interview. “I was like, ‘Where are we going? I’ve been on the streets since I was 12.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re not anymore.’”
Stairways’ main objective is rapidly housing the people least able to house themselves, whether due to mental illness or drug addiction, or both. And it’s important, Madieros says, to offer a hand the moment people are ready for help.
“Nobody’s going to wait a month,” he said. “If somebody’s ready for services today, you’d better provide those services today. Otherwise, you’ve lost them.”
Madieros first joined Stairways as a social worker in March 2014 and took over as executive director about seven months ago, when founder Mike Little parted ways after about 15 years of leading the nonprofit. It’s maintained a low profile despite offering 36 beds—which are nearly always full—and a host of on-site rehabilitative services, serving 200 meals a day and conducting near-daily outreach efforts in homeless hotspots throughout the community.
A social worker with 20 years of experience in both traditional and progressive shelters in San Diego and San Francisco, Madieros was hired to implement new models of recovery, at least for Chico—harm reduction and Housing First. They’re nothing new in the realm of social work, but Madieros has still ruffled some feathers by bringing those philosophies to Chico. For instance, he considers sobriety requirements at local shelters barriers to entry, but some local service providers and homeless advocates don’t like to hear that.
“I’ve somewhat brought it on myself with how I deliver the message,” he admitted. “I’m a bull in a china shop.”
The 6th Street Center for Youth also embraces harm reduction and Housing First methods, Madieros says, but Stairways is the only organization in town doing so that serves adults. And based on a limited sample, it works. Since Madieros became director, only two of 76 residents have returned to homelessness.
That’s his favorite statistic. Even in a city divided politically and ideologically on homelessness, everyone can agree on that goal, Madieros says. “We all want homeless people to have homes.”
While smoking a cigarette at the park bench outside Stairways, Brown, with his Southern accent, said he isn’t one to dwell on misfortune: “It’s like, quit with the pity-party, you know?” But he does acknowledge it’s been rough since his mother’s house outside of Hollywood, Fla., was raided during a methamphetamine bust when he was 6 years old.
Brown’s uncle assumed legal responsibility for him—Child Protective Services would have otherwise—but as the only white kid attending an all-black school, he was picked on mercilessly both for his skin color and because his uncle is gay.
“I got rocks thrown at me and got called ‘cracker’ and ‘faggot’ and shit,” he recalled. “I was always fighting.”
Brown ran away at 12 years old. He was already 6 feet tall, making it easy to lie about his age and hang with a much older crowd. Living on the streets, he used and sold drugs; eventually police caught him with 50 ecstasy pills. Trying to leave trouble behind, he hitchhiked across the country to find his mom in far Northern California.
It didn’t work out. After a couple weeks, he and his mother argued every day, so Brown headed north, to Oregon, to live with his father. Within two days, they got in a fist fight.
He left to live on the streets again, and was deeply depressed.
“I got tired of living and being a kid and nobody seeing a problem with a kid walking around all night, every night,” he said. “I was in a position where I was suicidal.”
But about two years ago in Greenville, Brown met a girl—someone to “build a life with.” Just a few weeks ago, he came to Chico for the first time, intending to find work and a home for himself and his girlfriend, who wants to attend Chico State but still lives with her family in the foothills. He got a job at a used car lot, but without proof of income from his first paycheck, hadn’t been able to sign a lease for housing.
Once again, Brown was sleeping outside, but under the added pressure of providing for a family. With his girlfriend due to deliver a child in about a month, he was more desperate than ever. Stairways has helped.
After meeting him outside City Hall, Madieros took Brown to the Stairways facility, a non-descript building in a neighborhood near Chico State. (The address is kept secret.) Several residents, both men and women, usually sit at plastic picnic tables outside the facility’s sleeping units, smoking cigarettes. Some show outward signs of anxiety, like legs bouncing uncontrollably. Throughout the day, clinicians from Butte County Behavioral Health come and go, as do law enforcement officers following up on referrals.
That’s not to say there’s tension in the air. Stairways has loose rules. There is no drug testing, but residents can’t use on-site. All decisions that affect residents are put to a community vote. There is no curfew. Those who miss dinner will be saved a plate. Residents’ rooms are inspected once a month.
“Our goal is for them to clean their rooms every day, and we work with them to get there,” Madieros said. “However, when somebody is just coming off the streets, they have mental illness and no living skills. We want them to say, ‘I have to because …’ and clean their room on their own. That’s the same thought process that says ‘I can’t have another beer because I have work tomorrow,’ or ‘I can’t yell at my mother because that will hurt our relationship.’ That’s the same sort of reasoning.
“We’re trying to give people the skills to live an independent and healthy life.”
Carrington Forbes, 22, believes strongly in the program. He works as night staff for Stairways and conducts outreach to homeless people, which is easy because he knows most of them from living on the streets.
Forbes became homeless on his 18th birthday, when his parents kicked him out of the house for not having a job. “I didn’t take them seriously,” he recalled. “They literally gave me a suitcase and a bus pass as my birthday presents.”
He lived out of his truck for months, still attending classes at Fair View High School mostly for the free lunches. After graduation, he hitchhiked the country for a couple years, and then returned to Chico, spending most days at City Plaza and camping far outside of town in a field between orchards. For a few months he was hooked on cocaine, but was able to kick that habit relatively easily. His real problem was alcohol.
“There was a six-month period I don’t remember at all because I was getting black-out drunk every night,” he said. He stole bottles from grocery stores, drinking at least a half-gallon of hard alcohol every day. Eventually his eyes and skin turned yellow. That’s when he admitted himself to rehab.
Now he’s enrolled in classes at Butte College. Originally he wanted to be a science teacher, but now he’s leaning toward social work because he’s good at it.
“When I go do outreach to these people, I can tell them I understand what they’re going through,” he said. “I tell them, ‘I got off the streets—if I can do it, you can do it.’”
Stairways operates on the Housing First model, which attempts to remove barriers (such as sobriety and mental health requirements) to place homeless people directly into their own independent living situation, rather than moving individuals through different levels of transitional housing. The approach has been demonstrably successful in the U.S. and overseas, and starting in 2008 the federal government has pushed for its national implementation.
One local casualty of that push is the Esplanade House, a transitional housing facility that’s long served Chico families who’ve suffered from homelessness, disability and addiction. It recently lost $150,000 in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (see “Esplanade House takes a hit,” Newslines, by Ken Smith, Oct. 22). As of this year, eligible programs cannot impose requirements such as the Esplanade House’s rule that participants must be sober for 30 days prior to entry.
In terms of treating substance abuse, Stairways follows the harm reduction model—accepting drug use as a reality and working to minimize its harmful affects through a spectrum of strategies, from safer use, to managed use and complete abstinence. By way of example, Madieros described two former Stairways residents who abused alcohol heavily, with one often driving drunk back to the facility. “You’d come out each morning and see his poor parking job,” he said.
Rather than kicking the residents out of the shelter, which would set back recovery, Madieros took away the driver’s keys.
“Then they’d come stumbling back, just falling-down drunk,” he said. “Step one of harm reduction is to do less harm to others, and now they’re not driving and there goes their risk of harming somebody else.” He’s worked with the two residents ever since, and they’ve both been sober for about a year.
Not everyone believes in harm reduction. Madieros is regularly bombarded with hateful emails from locals who believe he’s giving homeless people drugs and handing out needles, and he’s continually justifying his practices in board meetings in order to plead for funding. (Stairways has seven full-time staff members, but ideally would have about 15, Madieros said, and he could take “20 more people off the streets right now” if he had more facility space.)
His response is that it’s important to extend services to people who can’t stay at the Esplanade House, the Torres Community Shelter or Jesus Center because of clean and sober requirements. There’s no questioning those organizations’ value to the community, he says. They each house, feed and provide services to a great number of homeless people and “absolutely need to exist.”
But insobriety remains a major barrier to treatment.
“[Sobriety] is a ridiculous expectation if we know a whole bunch of people are out there because of substance abuse disorders,” he said. “My job as a social worker is to get homeless people off the streets and engage them in services.”
Stairways has been proactive on that front for the past several months, hitting the streets early in the morning with outreach efforts throughout the week. The CN&R tagged along during three recent excursions.
Madieros is nearly 6-foot-5 and fits snugly in the driver’s seat of his SUV. Despite driving to many of the same bridges and parks every day while on outreach, Madieros said he’s “directionally challenged” and frequently asked where to turn next. Providing directions from the passenger seat was Stairways’ chef, who probably not coincidentally goes only by Chef. The letters C-H-E-F are tattooed above his knuckles. In addition to whipping up about 200 healthy, all-organic meals for residents every day, he goes on outreach with Madieros most mornings.
Driving around Chico, Madieros shared snippets of his past. He was raised in the Barrio Logan neighborhood in San Deigo, where he was stabbed for the first time in the third grade. Then there was a violent stint in a motorcycle club. After leading a double life as a biker who worked with homeless youth on weekends, Madieros eventually left the gang life behind entirely. He began working in homeless shelters, including harm reduction facilities in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. He moved to Chico while his wife completed her master’s degree in social work at Chico State.
Madieros and Chef’s first stop was a café. Chef jumped out of the SUV and returned with two small coffees. They were looking for two homeless men they’d met the day before, and found them at the same place—sleeping against a building across the street from the coffee shop. Both men were covered only in a single blanket. One, frail and weather-worn, shivered and clearly savored the warmth on his hands when Madieros handed him a coffee.
The shivering man said he has family in Santa Cruz, where he was last sober. He started drinking again after his daughter died in a car accident. If he could verify that the man has family in Santa Cruz, Madieros said, and that they wanted him back, he would return the next day with a bus ticket.
“I’m going to get you help, just like I got you that coffee,” he said.
Back in the SUV, Madieros said the most important aspect of outreach is being honest. “You have to keep your word.”
Madieros and Chef made several stops at homeless encampments and gathering areas, including Lindo Channel, City Plaza, the bike path paralleling the train tracks near Eighth Avenue, and the Bidwell Bowl Amphitheater near Children’s Playground. At the last stop, Chef pointed out cotton balls and orange syringe caps—telltale signs of drug injection—in between the amphitheater’s steps, just yards away from kids using playground equipment at the park. Madieros sees that as an alarming confluence of hard drug users and a vulnerable population.
“There’s this narrative in the community that the homeless are all just nice people down on their luck,” he said. “That is absolutely the case with a huge majority of them, but as a mental health professional I can tell you it’s not the case with all of them. … Billy’s not living the same moralistic life they are. Billy is robbing and doing whatever he can to get high, and when Billy wants to get laid, he’s just taking that from somebody.”
That point was illustrated when Madieros got a call from Chico Police Sgt. Scott Zuschin, the supervisor for the department’s recently reactivated TARGET team, a special three-officer unit dedicated to responding to chronic neighborhood problems. As part of Police Chief Mike O’Brien’s reorganization of the department to adopt a community policing model, he’s directed the TARGET team to collaborate with Stairways on outreach.
Zuschin wanted social workers along for a walk-through in Lindo Channel. After a streetside rendezvous, the team entered the channel and immediately encountered a homeless woman sitting in the dirt alongside the bike path, sobbing. She told Zuschin she needed a few minutes to gain her composure. Stairways case manager Mackenzie Lovie stayed back to talk to the woman, who then told her she’d just been raped.
During a separate interview, Zuschin said having Stairways along allowed the woman to open up, whereas she might not have filed a report without the presence of Lovie. The TARGET team was able to connect the woman with health services and “now she’s getting the help she needs,” he said.
The outreach efforts of Stairways and the TARGET team already dovetail, Zuschin said, so it makes sense to work together.
“We’re making those contacts, hearing what people need and just being available,” he said. “For the longest time, the police department has been so short-staffed that we’ve been stuck inside our cars. But staffing has grown and we’re changing the culture of the department to be more interactive with the community—as a police department should be.”
In an effort to strengthen that approach, Zuschin recently met with Capt. Andy Duch of the Butte County Sheriff’s Office to explore the possibility of handing Butte County Jail inmates with mental illness or substance abuse disorders at risk of homelessness directly over to Stairways.
“My answer was certainly, yes, because that’s exactly what we do with our alternative-custody ankle-monitor program,” Duch said by phone with CN&R.
Zuschin and Duch agreed on a system. Once an inmate is sentenced, assessed for risk and determined eligible for alternative custody, the TARGET team would pick them up from jail, take them to get an ankle monitor and deliver them to Stairways.
“That got my attention,” Duch said. “This is Chico PD, and they’re going to come pick up an inmate and deliver them to services? That’s awesome.”
Duch’s hope is that inmates won’t be back. According to a survey of Stairways residents taken in March, of 23 residents who were on probation or parole when they entered Stairways, only one was reincarcerated.
Another argument for proactive community engagement is preventing emergencies. Just last week, Madieros was walking along Fourth Street near City Plaza and saw from a distance that several people, including a man wearing a nice suit and a woman with “a hippie-ish vibe,” were stepping over something on the sidewalk, and they looked “really put out about it.”
“I realized they were stepping over a homeless gentleman dying on the street,” he said. “All I could see was an awful lot of blood, and that he was choking to death.”
By the time Madieros crossed the street, five or six people had walked past the man, who he would learn later had suffered a seizure, bitten his tongue, and was choking on the blood. Madieros understands the risks of coming in contact with bodily fluids but, seeing no sign of help, rolled the man on his side, cleared his airway and supported his head. Madieros says he could feel blood pumping over his hands.
While waiting for the emergency personnel who eventually stabilized the man and took him to the hospital, Madieros had “a slow-motion moment.” He’d watched two people he assumed were opposites, politically, act similarly indifferent toward someone in dire need.
“It just hit me—this issue is so divisive that people will watch a human being die,” he said. “You don’t even call for help?”
Recently, opposing ideological stances regarding homelessness have been on full display with the Chico City Council’s approval of the controversial Offenses Against Waterways and Public Property ordinance. It prohibits the storage of personal property on public land; establishes City Hall and the surrounding area as a “Civic Center” with an exhaustive list of prohibitions; extends the city’s existing civil-sidewalks ordinance (also known as the sit/lie law) to building entrances; and allows police officers to more easily cite homeless people for camping along Chico’s creeks and tributaries.
Critics say the law criminalizes homelessness and potentially represents a constitutional violation by targeting vulnerable populations. Supporters say it’s a tool for law enforcement and advocates to clean up the city and direct homeless people to services.
The ordinance doesn’t go into effect until the beginning of November, but Madieros is already seeing its influence. People who believe the law is being enforced are coming to Stairways and engaging in programming rather than setting up camps outside. That’s why Madieros supports the ordinance, seeing it as a tool to direct homeless people to services, and wants it extended citywide rather than just at the Civic Center and in parks and creeks. He said as much during the council meeting on Oct. 6, arguing that the law shouldn’t vary by location.
“When I go out to do outreach, when the officers are out there doing their thing, [it would be] a lot easier,” he told the council. “We don’t have to look at, ‘What street am I on? Is this the tactic I’m going to use to help this individual because I’m on this corner?’”
Supporting the law has drawn the ire of some advocates who say Madieros is helping the city trample on homeless peoples’ rights. But Madieros says his end game is housing homeless people. Even if it’s controversial, he’ll take all the help he can get.
As an expecting father, Brown believes that hooking up with Madieros and Stairways was “one of those things that just happens, like a miracle, or just really good timing.” He spoke to the CN&R the morning after his first night at Stairways, and getting a full night’s sleep for the first time in three weeks.
He recognizes the damage done by his parents’ absence, seven years as a homeless youth, lying, selling drugs and continually finding trouble. But Brown wants to move forward positively. He intends to make good on the opportunity to maintain his job, find permanent housing, raise his child and help his girlfriend pursue an education.
“This is the first time I’ve worked for something,” Brown said. “My reasons for living now are more important. My girlfriend got me making a life—not just living my life, but going out and taking more.
“Having my kid is going to make up for my past, and my parents not being there,” he said. “I’m going to be there.”