Taking care of our own
Esplanade House supporters believe an ‘it takes a village’ approach to helping homeless families will save children while building a compassionate community
The setting is not Dr. Gary Incaudo’s first choice for well-child checks—he’d rather have the squirmy tots transported to his nicely equipped, sterile office—but it will do.
He’s in the nursery of the Esplanade House, a transitional shelter for homeless families in Chico. A seahorse, crab and octopus grin merrily from one wall, while babies nap in a row of cribs on the other side of the room.
Tuberculosis tests are on tap, now that the shelter’s day care center is licensed by the state. And Incaudo, one of the founders of the Esplanade House, is a logical choice for the task.
Sadona Mondabough-Miller offers up her daughter, Cayla, who just turned 1. “She’s wheezy, but every time I take her in, she sounds clear,” says her frustrated mother. “Her colds hang on forever.” A few months ago, Cayla was in the hospital for three days with respiratory problems, including bronchitis.
This time Cayla has a rash, and her mom suspects a milk allergy is the culprit. Cayla was doing well drinking soy formula, and Incaudo suggests she return to that. It’s not that simple, Mondabough-Miller says, looking up at Incaudo hopefully. “With WIC, I have to get a prescription for that.”
Later, Mondabough-Miller brushes long, unruly bangs from the eyes of her 4-year-old, Jazlyn. The difference between her family and that of middle-class Chico residents isn’t just two paychecks, a mini-van and a house with a picket fence. “It’s the simple things, like getting a haircut and getting the right milk.”
For these families—12 of them at a time sheltered with their children in rooms in a converted motel at 2505 The Esplanade near East Avenue—this place is a respite. Depending on their resolve, and how many people rally to love and support them, it can be the place where these parents’ lives gets on track for good or, more modestly, a pit stop, buying time for their children to get a taste of what stability is like. It’s the only program like it in the state north of Sacramento.
In Butte County, a large cross-section of the community, including “compassionate conservatives,” has thrown heart and soul into not only supporting but also expanding the Esplanade House. That effort proved controversial last year, as future neighbors fought having homeless people, many of whom have abused alcohol and other drugs, living nearby.
If that experience showed the grass-roots group of volunteers anything, it’s that some people don’t understand what the Esplanade House does, how it helps the Northstate as a whole and why a community—morally, fundamentally—should take care of its own. Supporters are dedicating themselves to answering these questions, so that when the new shelter goes up people will see its residents for what they are—just a few more families on the block.
Incaudo, an allergy specialist, had already been working on homelessness issues through Faith Lutheran Church when he joined forces with Chico developer Greg Webb, a parishioner at St. John’s Catholic Church who had similar values. Seeing a middle ground between liberals’ handouts and the traditionally hands-off approach of the Republican set, the pair devised a plan, as Webb puts it, to “help the homeless help themselves.”
“There was a time when I thought, ‘You just have to work hard; anybody can [succeed].’ I did it,” Webb says. But that kind of one-size-fits-all individualism, the buck-up-and-make-something-of-yourself ethic, isn’t always realistic with people who are forced to learn how to fend off blows from parents and spouses rather than how to become productive members of society. The result, too often, is chaos and instability.
“When you’re somewhere between the first rung and the bottom of the ladder … you have to have that stability before you can gain anything else,” says Webb.
It was Webb who first spied the motel and helped convince the city to buy it, and it was he who, last year, fronted nearly $500,000—later recovered with state grants and local redevelopment agency funds—for a 3.5-acre parcel at the corner of The Esplanade and East Shasta Avenue for a new Esplanade House to serve more families longer.
Since 1991, more than 600 homeless children have lived with their families at the shelter. They stay for up to a year, with the adults taking classes, gathering parenting and life management skills and gradually working their way toward the goal of self-sufficiency.
The founders’ thinking was that the problem of homeless families was more complex than poverty and lack of affordable housing. Drug and alcohol dependence, mental illness and the emotional baggage of abuse also played a role. Just to provide a roof was not enough, so the directors also set about raising money for professional counselors and other ongoing operating needs. Never intending to rely solely on government money, the Esplanade House directors set up the Children’s Trust, a nonprofit, to keep private-sector dollars separate from public funds. Private donations from businesses, grants, foundations and individuals make up 45 percent of the budget.
The name “Children’s Trust” hints at where supporters see the biggest opportunity. The knowledge that, even after the seven- to 12-month infusion of skills parents get in the Esplanade House, some will still go back to their old habits doesn’t make Webb any less passionate about the value of the Esplanade House. What the children carry away will stay with them long after they’re gone.
“We’re stabilizing the parents, but we’re probably influencing the kids a lot more,” Webb said. “It’s huge for the kids.”
Off a quiet street in the Avenues, three mornings a week before the heat sets in, Esplanade House participants do garden work as babies rest in infant carriers or in a playpen in the shade. A donor not only contributed the use of the plot of land, but also bought gardening tools, dirt, plants, seeds and lumber to build beds for radishes, baby carrots and more. She provided a portable toilet and a shed, even a lawn gnome.
Several of the Esplanade House residents look forward to working in the garden, but it’s not as if they have a choice: Garden work, like almost everything else in the program, is mandatory.
Each adult comes to nutrition, parenting skills and other meetings clutching a little slip of paper that has to be initialed by a staff member. Miss more than a couple of meetings—some are held in the “group room” at the Esplanade House; others are hosted by organizations such as Touchstone or CalWorks (the state’s welfare-to-work program)—and one’s future at the Esplanade House is threatened.
“Structure” is an understatement at the Esplanade House. Visitors are restricted to 30 minutes a day after 3 p.m. Drug tests are mandatory. Skipping out on chores, missing the 10:30 p.m. curfew and even bad language can earn the offender a warning; the third warning is a written citation, and three citations equal eviction.
Mickey Taylor, who has been the project coordinator at the Esplanade House since 1993, says if the participants have a problem with the rules, they can’t claim they didn’t know about them going in. “We tell them this is an in-your-face program,” she says. “You forfeit a lot of your rights and your independence. We’ll tell you what to do for seven months of your life. It takes some adjustment.
“They understand that they haven’t been able to manage their lives heretofore and their best efforts got them here.”
It’s tough love, Esplanade House-style. “Nobody gets to just sit here and do nothing,” Taylor says.
One young mother of two lets out a laugh when asked if it’s hard to give up so much control. She’s trying to tough it out, because she knows the abusive situation she came from wasn’t any better.
“I watched my mom go through that,” she says. “I told myself I would never let a man beat me and I would never do drugs because I saw what it did to my family.” She sighs. “Never say never.”
Susan Prescott, the Esplanade House’s substance abuse counselor, says that, although not all of the residents have drug problems, it’s hard for people to live productively if that’s never been modeled for them. “The addiction is consuming,” she says. “Your world view narrows down. … A lot of people pop out [of the haze of drug use] at 35, and emotionally they’re 14, but they’ve been 14 for 15 years.
“Our goal is to break the cycle on that kind of dysfunction,” she says, adding that it’s important to their recovery that parents forgive themselves for past mistakes. After all, she says, “all families go through hard stuff. There are some really screwed-up kids whose parents didn’t do drugs.”
In the group room, signs on the wall range from inspirational sayings (there’s a spiritual component to recovery here) to adages such as “knowledge is not the answer.” That, explains one resident, is because, “It’s not what you know. It’s how you use it.”
Case manager Christine Hartman, who also teaches living skills and leads a writing group, opens the morning meeting by asking everyone to choose a “word for the day.” “Patience” and “tolerance” are thrown out, and the roomful of women and one man confess to feelings ranging from “tired” to “OK” to “great.” Hartman passes around a jar containing chores, and everyone roots for “watering” or “front playground.” Homework includes finalizing a household budget and getting a money order—a steep $15 or more apiece—to send away for their children’s birth certificates, a requirement to apply for Section 8 subsidized housing. “You figure you’d at least be entitled to a copy of your own baby’s birth certificate,” sighs one mother, mentally calculating the bite that will take.
Later, privately, Hartman explains why she can relate so well to the parents who live in the Esplanade House. “I went through this program and I worked really, really hard,” she says. “The hardest part for me was the ‘inside’ work. I did drugs for 20 years, and I did them because I didn’t want to face the pain from all the childhood [trauma].”
She graduated in August 1995 and graduated from Butte College two years later, securing a certificate in Alcohol and Drug Studies—a common career choice of Esplanade House veterans. It’s Hartman who gets on the phone with government agencies when a client is getting the runaround. And she can also tell when the parents themselves are shining her on, because “I myself have used every excuse in the book, so I know when I’m hearing it.
“We’re like our own little family here,” Hartman says. “When I go home at night I feel good about myself, like I’ve made a difference.”
Mondabough-Miller’s room, with its worn linoleum, looks every bit the former hotel room that it is, but it still manages to have a homey feel. There are between 25 and 30 children living at the Esplanade House at one time, so there are strollers—some of them doubles—parked in front of nearly every door.
Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear rests half-read on the bed, which doubles as a couch. A box full of stuffed animals rescued from donation bags sits against one wall. On a shelf is a picture of Mondabough-Miller’s three girls, one of those old-style, sepia-toned portraits where they’ve dressed everyone up in oversized Victorian clothes. Mondabough-Miller had it taken when she got her tax return check last year, and it’s one of the few pictures she has of her youngest daughter. The family arrived here with just one backpack full of possessions.
Mondabough-Miller glances around apologetically but says, “When you’ve been living out of other people’s houses and out of boxes, it’s nice just to have a space I can call mine right now.”
In the tiny, tidy kitchen, a rainbow calendar hangs on the wall. The only things marked are: “60 days clean” and “75 days clean.” She’d stayed off meth and alcohol for two years before her most recent relapse.
She was referred to the Esplanade House by Catalyst, a refuge for victims of domestic violence. Her subsequent treatment recently offered a big chunk of the puzzle of why she’d had trouble staying focused: She was diagnosed as bipolar—a new and different stigma, but at least one she could define.
At the Esplanade House, the 26-year-old says, “a lot of the focus has been on rebuilding my self-esteem. It was stuff we weren’t taught to start with, [and] I hope that I’m learning it, so I can teach my girls not to go through it. But if I sit here and dwell on it, it’s not going to make anything better.
“I’m trying not to set my goals too far ahead right now,” she says. “I was thinking about child development.” She grins sheepishly: “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.”
When Taylor goes out into the community to talk about the Esplanade House, one of the most common questions is about how things ultimately turn out for these families. People want hard numbers, percentages. They don’t want to picture spending taxpayer, or even private, dollars on someone who will just end up back on the street and the dole.
“People just have this mindset that they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps and they made it, so everybody else should, too,” Taylor says. “People always ask, ‘What is your success?'” That, and whether the participants have jobs. “Everyone’s focus is ‘work, work, work,’ but we are dealing with people who are in early recovery, just getting their kids back or are coming out of abusive [situations].”
Although it’s unreasonable to think the program can fix everything at once, Esplanade House participants are repeatedly evaluated using a matrix system.
Survival and success criteria such as shelter, health, safety, drug dependency, finances, transportation, employability, education and children’s education are ranked at levels ranging from “in crisis” to “self-sufficient.”
“Our goal, as a program, is to move them as far up this matrix in as many areas as possible,” Taylor says. To put it more simply, if participants are not back to being homeless after a year and their kids are safe, they’re tallied among the successes.
Even with her years of experience, Taylor doesn’t always guess right on who will “make it.”
“I’m like the principal. I’m the enforcer,” she says. Taylor has been ready to drop someone from the program and lobbied otherwise by staff counselors. Then, for the client, “the light bulb goes on.”
Toni Summers has been through it all. She’s a 1998 graduate (the ceremonies, by the way, are held with great praise and fanfare) and has been clean almost five years.
“Coming back here keeps me in focus,” says Summers, who chats with the clients and helps out at the front desk.
Her problem was alcohol addiction, and her son was 4 months old when she was accepted into the Esplanade House.
“People are who their parents raised,” she says. “I did not want to parallel my upbringing for my son. He was a healthy, perfect baby, and I knew I had to change.
“These people loved me until I could love myself. I didn’t even know how to go about cleaning up the wreckage of my past.”
Since she graduated, Summers has been working office jobs, but she’d rather focus on her education. This month, she’s going to court, appealing to the state welfare system to allow her to count her college courses as work activity, instead of cutting her off from assistance.
As it is, her boy is in day care 10 hours a day. Being a stay-at-home mom seems to Summers to be a luxury of the wealthier classes. “They would just say we’re a bunch of losers and we chose our path,” she says. “But we just want to make it and be good for our kids.
“Even if people get off of welfare, they’re working poor, they’re not making it,” she says. “They [state officials] wouldn’t care if it was minimum wage, as long as you were working. They would say, ‘She’s off welfare. She’s a success story.’ But I’m probably going to be at poverty level for the rest of my life.”
Summers agrees there’s a point when, after drug addiction, homelessness and self-esteem issues are largely dealt with, that graduates realize life’s still not perfect and some in society still consider them throwaway citizens. It can be crushing. But that’s where a support system comes in and why proponents say an expanded Esplanade House is so critical.
Another level of on-site transitional housing for Esplanade House graduates would expand on the aftercare program already in place, in which volunteer mentors are matched with participants to offer ongoing support.
“That’s probably the biggest factor in homelessness: the lack of community support,” Webb says. For people with few friends or family members with the means to help them, “it’s so easy to fall back into your old ways.”
Supporters hope to have an Esplanade House serving 60 families built at the Esplanade and East Shasta site by 2004. The plan includes doubling the number of units for new families and adding 34 units of apartments that will serve as the second phase in the transition, likely boosting the program’s success rate.
“I think it’s going to be the ideal model for shelters across the country,” Incaudo says.
The only thing that stands in its way is a few million dollars in construction costs and operating subsidies.
On June 6, the board of the Community Action Agency of Butte County, which officially administers the Esplanade House, voted to apply for a Housing and Urban Development grant totaling $318,526 spread over three years. But when it comes to “continuum of care” grants, either public or private, everyone wants someone else to put up the money and deem the project financially feasible. “No one wants to jump in first,” observes Tom Tenorio, executive director of the Community Action Agency. So, the process will take longer than the average housing project.
Webb says the trick will be to market the Esplanade House by getting into the heads of the people approving the grants and finding out how to convince them of what local supporters already know: It’s a good investment. “How do you make ‘homeless’ sexy?” ponders Webb, ever the businessman.
The five-year strategic plan also includes an effort to educate people locally about exactly what the Esplanade House is and whom it serves. People who own houses near where the new building will go lobbied the Chico City Council last year, unsuccessfully resisting the passing along of federal funding to buy the property at 2920 The Esplanade. Opponents gathered 1,000 signatures on a petition. Someone even circulated a flier with a map to the residences of city officials who voted for the expansion, inviting the homeless to bunk at their homes. Another opponent suggested that the shelter would be better located in a poorer neighborhood, so its children wouldn’t feel out of place at school.
Tenorio was surprised; staff members and former residents such as Hartman were shocked. After one meeting, she left the council chambers in tears.
“We run a tight ship. Maybe that just wasn’t out there,” Tenorio reflects. “Maybe it’s just the need for more information.
“There is no population that’s homogenous. All homeless families are not the same. All low-income families are not the same.”
Webb believes that, once the new Esplanade House is built and the families have lived there for a while, the neighbors will forget about their once-fervent opposition, which he believes really amounted to only a handful of people. “Most issues in which there’s a huge public outcry, it’s out of fear,” he says. “I think the whole human race, all of the conflict in the world, a lot of it is just not accepting someone who is different from you. … But we’re all the same makeup, genetically speaking. [The differences] are environmental.”
Incaudo acknowledges that some people are hard-core individualists who believe the government should provide only the bare minimum of public services.
“I think, philosophically and societally, you have to decide whether you’re going to help people or not help people” and whether to do so with stopgap measures or for the long term.
“There are people who make bad choices and make mistakes, and what are you going to do with them in the end?” Incaudo asks. If society chooses not to help them get up, or at least stabilize them, “not only do they become a continual burden, but so do their children.” To ignore the problem, he says, “is a false economy. We don’t live in a vacuum.”
“I was very idealistic in the beginning,” Incaudo admits. Now, “I understand that these social problems are more complex than they seem on the surface.”
For the adults at the Esplanade House, it can seem like their pasts haunt them at every turn.
Kindra Wais-Preciado is in the Esplanade House computer area trying to be patient, stifling a curse word when she hits the wrong key on a typing test. She’s up to 37 words a minute, but she used to clock 52.
Despite longtime methamphetamine addiction, Wais-Preciado has accumulated an associate’s degree in health, graduating with a 4.0. The irony doesn’t escape her: “How can I promote health and well-being when I’m on drugs?” She once made $19 an hour, but “all my money went to drugs.”
Baby Kaylei sleeps nearby in a brand-new stroller, a gift from Wais-Preciado’s mother, who is just beginning to trust that this time her daughter’s clean for good.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I quit my drug use and my smoking,” Wais-Preciado says. She checked herself into a drug treatment program, Right Roads, in Tehama County, where she stayed for three months. “I’ve talked about recovery, but this time I did something about it,” she says. “Having her, it’s a double incentive.”
She gave birth May 7 and moved into the Esplanade House on May 13. “You have to sell yourself, really, because there are a lot of applicants.” (To get in, a family has to be homeless or at risk of becoming so and must already be clean and sober and willing to make a lifestyle change. Families with a greater number of children are defined as having the greatest level of need. For every family accepted, 10 are turned away.)
Once there, each family must pay 20 percent of its income in a “participation fee"—rent, essentially. Thirty percent is put in trust for when they graduate.
This week, Wais-Preciado is wealthy by Esplanade House standards. Public assistance checks won’t be in for several days, but she still has $20 in her pocket. “This month, I did OK, so I was able to buy myself a pair of shoes.”
Her entire monthly income is $521, not counting food stamps. She’s “not real proud” that she’s on welfare, but, “I have every anticipation of getting off this.”
She’s allotted herself $30 for diapers, $40 for transportation and $30 for laundry (baby soap is pricey). A chunk goes toward paying off a traffic ticket she got for not having her older children in seatbelts. (They’re now 15 and 9 and live with her mother.) She ignored the ticket, and now there’s a hold on her license and fines totaling $784. “We call that wreckage,” she says.
Another resident, Fawn Dorman, has also been homeless with her children, some of whom landed in foster care. “I wasn’t a great mom,” she summarizes. “The CPS worker told me I wouldn’t get my kids back.” Now, she’s set to have all four—ages 11, 7, 22 months and 8 months—together by the end of the year. “When CPS told me to jump, I said, ‘How high?'”
Dorman is about to graduate and get her own apartment. In August she’ll start school, with plans of becoming an alcohol and drug counselor.
“It’s scary, because this place is safe. I’m anxious and I’m excited,” she says. She had used drugs for 18 years, but this time, “I have a real support system.
“Living here changed my life,” she says. “It’s probably been the best 10 months of my life. I’m doing really well now. I’m really proud of where I’ve come from, where I’m at now and where I’m going, and a lot of it is because of the Esplanade House.”
Mondabough-Miller, too, is confident that, having gotten out of a bad relationship, she can stay away from drugs. Her self-esteem is improving. Getting financially stable and not having to worry about shelter are in the front of her mind as her girls get old enough to realize they’re living differently from their peers. A trip to McDonald’s or the dollar store is a huge treat for her girls.
“I don’t want to say, ‘I can’t. We don’t have the money,'” she says, or tell her daughters they can’t go to the movies or roller-skating with the rest of their class. “It’s, ‘Who’s got the newest PlayStation and who’s got the newest games for that,’ and then we’re, like, ‘What are we going to eat this week because the food stamps haven’t come yet.’
“I’ve made my mistakes in life, but my kids don’t deserve this.”
Recently, at a Chico copy shop, a young man whom Taylor didn’t recognize enthusiastically greeted her. He told her, “I used to be in Room 8.” He’s in college, majoring in physics. “I was blown away,” Taylor says. “For me, it’s one person at a time, one family at a time.
“We’re not a cracker factory, where if a cracker is broken we just pick it up and throw it in the garbage. We’re dealing with people’s lives. They’re not crackers. We need to pick them up and put them back together."