Warmer welcome

Torres Shelter expands operations to daytime hours

Shelby Lambert takes a break at the Torres Shelter, where she’s now able to stay during the day.

Shelby Lambert takes a break at the Torres Shelter, where she’s now able to stay during the day.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

When the Torres Community Shelter transitioned to operating 24/7 last weekend, Shelby Lambert knew it would make a significant difference in her life.

Lambert, a 58-year-old with multiple sclerosis, has been a guest at the shelter on and off for the past two years. As of Saturday (Jan. 19), she was one of more than 130 homeless people staying at the facility.

“I don’t have to go out in the rain,” she told the CN&R on Monday afternoon. “A lot of times [before], I just went to Barnes & Noble, because I can’t travel far with this walker. … Even on windy, rainy days, I was out in it.”

A day center for homeless people is a significant development for Chico, whose service providers historically have offered shelter only during late afternoon and evening hours. Previously at the Torres Shelter, people checked in around 4:30 p.m. each day and were ushered off the site by 6:45 a.m., after breakfast.

Torres Shelter Executive Director Joy Amaro said there always has been a desire to provide this access. Now, because of grant funding, the shelter hired the additional staff needed to operate 24/7. The organization has a commitment of $131,000 of the $1 million awarded to local nonprofits by the Walmart Foundation in the wake of the Camp Fire (see “A place for everyone,” Newslines, Dec. 13, 2018). That money was earmarked to help the increased needs of the local homeless population, which includes chronically homeless people as well as evacuees. Indeed, the Torres Shelter already has taken in about 20 people displaced by the wildfire.

The funding will keep the new hours operational through November, but Amaro said the shelter is applying for grants to remain open around the clock for as long as possible. The nonprofit’s staff recognizes the difference it can make for its guests, she said.

“It’s a place for respite … a place to just be able to breathe for a while, because most homeless are always on the move,” she said. “Now it’s our job to provide that safe environment so they can get adjusted to a new norm as we look to move them into stable housing.”

To flesh out the shelter’s new daytime hours, Torres Shelter staff will work on bringing in more formal activities, such as GED certification, cooking, life skills and art therapy classes—“something that really strikes their interest that could help motivate them” to pursue employment opportunities or hobbies, Amaro said.

It isn’t just the hours of operation that are changing. The shelter also has started taking in vaccinated, well-behaved pets in an effort to reduce its barriers to those living on the street. In addition to providing dinner and breakfast, the facility now serves lunch. That mid-day meal is prepared by shelter guests who participate in a vocational kitchen program.

For shelter guest Ryan Moss, a change like this “would have made all the difference” early last year. At the time, he had a job in which he worked graveyard shifts. Because he had nowhere to sleep during the day, he wandered around, often getting jostled from businesses. He would be sent away from work sometimes because he was delirious from the lack of sleep.

It’s nice not feeling the pressure to be out and about in public, he said, where many homeless people are shunned. And he knows if he lands another job working night shifts—the other fell through after a living situation soured—it’ll be much easier to handle because he will have a place to rest during the day.

“I see so much good that could come from it,” Moss said. “It’s a step in the right direction for people who have the drive to grow in this situation.”

During the changeover to new hours, Amaro had planned to transition to a completely low-barrier facility, accepting folks as they are and forgoing drug testing. However, the organization is putting that plan on hold until a better family shelter option is arranged, she told the CN&R. There are four families and 11 children on-site; co-mingling the populations poses safety concerns. The shelter will continue to operate its existing, separate low-barrier program.

Meanwhile, its staff has been working with other local service providers to help house or provide emergency shelter to those living at the American Red Cross shelter at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, which closes at the end of this month (see “Shelter no more,” Newslines, Jan. 17). The organization also has welcomed the overflow from Safe Space Winter Shelter—about three to 10 people per night.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is where all of its guests will go long-term. Local housing options have dried up as Ridge residents have sought housing elsewhere in the county. “All I know is that our length of stays are going to be a lot longer,” Amaro said. Currently, the average stay is a little under two months.

Since the Camp Fire, the shelter’s case managers have been asking longtime clients if they have friends or family they can stay with, and if they are open to relocating, since local housing options are sparse.

“They do get really down and sad because their chance of being housed [locally] is not very high right now,” Amaro said of the shelter’s current guests. “[But] it’s our job to help keep that open mind and not let their hopes fade.”