One-of-a-kind Sacramento Senior Safe House faces Valentine's Day closure

Clients have been bamboozled out of retirement savings by close family members, betrayed by caretakers, evicted or foreclosed on

Experiencing a two-month bout of homelessness, John, 70, was brought to the Sacramento Senior Safe House for shelter and relocation services about three weeks ago. The safe house is in danger of closing because of a financial deficit.

Experiencing a two-month bout of homelessness, John, 70, was brought to the Sacramento Senior Safe House for shelter and relocation services about three weeks ago. The safe house is in danger of closing because of a financial deficit.

Photo by Jonathan Mendick

Sunk into a tawny recliner with his cane propped beside him, John chills as the tacky spectacle of The Jerry Springer Show clamors like white noise. This is a rare period of rest and relaxation for the 70-year-old, a temporary resident of the Sacramento Senior Safe House, which has sheltered and relocated hundreds of abused and neglected seniors since opening its doors four-and-a-half years ago.

A Sacramento County Adult Protective Services social worker dropped John off here about three weeks ago. Before that, the retired Amtrak engineer was on the streets for two months. He wasn’t sure he’d survive the winter—or that he wanted to.

“God Almighty, if my [social] worker hadn’t brought me here, I would’ve left,” he said. “I wouldn’t’ve stayed. Life’s too hard.”

John isn’t talking about leaving Sacramento. He’s referring to this mortal coil. It’s legitimate to say, then, that this place saved John’s life.

But who will save the savior?

Without a fast injection of community cash, the one-of-a-kind safe house—“the only one west of the Mississippi,” believed program director Juanita Daniel—will shut its doors on February 14, a.k.a. Valentine’s Day.

It’s yet another local charitable organization facing yet another financial crisis, following in the Chicken Little footsteps of Wind Youth Services, Salvation Army and Regional Human Rights/Fair Housing Commission, all of which experienced falling skies in the past year.

The senior safe house’s needs are equally pressing, in that it has two weeks to raise approximately $60,000 or else close for at least a year.

“If we close February 14, there will be no place for these residents to go in our community,” said Christie J. Holderegger, chief development officer of Volunteers of America Northern California & Northern Nevada, which operates the safe house.

Since the summer of 2009, the home has sheltered roughly 245 seniors and provided them housing and relocation services.

Most are from the Sacramento area, though some traveled as far as Texas. The shelter averages about 50 clients a year, most of whom stay for about 30 days. It’s temporary respite from whatever harsh reality the seniors have just escaped.

John’s working with staff here and at APS to find more permanent environs. If the economy has its way, he might be one of the last to get such help.

Before the safe house existed, Holderegger said, rescued seniors either got a bed and a bag of food at a shelter or were put up at a convalescent home.

An unhelpful collision of circumstances dug this hole: Just as the county was pulling back on its funding commitments to various VOA programs, a major private donor died last month, leaving a $200,000-sized crater.

Earlier this month, the VOA board convened for what Holderegger described as a “challenging” meeting. Because the safe house is the only program that’s entirely community funded, the board decided it couldn’t keep it going at the expense of other housing and assistance ventures.

Holderegger asked the board to delay its sentence for 30 days and got on the media bullhorn. A slew of donors big and small chipped in north of $137,000 in two weeks, but the number of checks has dwindled. The final 60 grand will likely be the hardest.

“We have gaps in all our programs,” she said. “This is just the largest one.”

And all for a program that almost didn’t happen.

Mercy Housing originally intended to open a shelter for runaway youth on this 1-acre plot, but met strong opposition from neighboring residents. In stepped Maxine Milner Krugman, an elder advocate who spied a need for a haven for mistreated or forgotten seniors. Neighbors reluctantly agreed to the alternative, and the 4,783 square-foot custom-made home was built.

Retired in 1991, John has six sisters residing in the area, but it doesn’t seem like they’re on good terms. When asked if he wants help getting in touch, John politely waves away the offer. “I know where they are,” he said.

He visited a brother in Louisiana, but didn’t cotton to the swamp state and returned to Sacramento roughly nine weeks ago. When he got back, he had no place and no one to ask for help. “I’m pretty much on my own here,” he said.

Dressed in a floral shirt and tan jacket and capped by ashy-white hair, John makes no mention of the wedding band around his ring finger.

Both Daniel and Holderegger mention other guests, like the feisty 92-year-old Japanese woman who survived two internment camps, and the late-60s South African woman who returned following a recurrence of breast cancer. Staff was able to reach one of her estranged sons, but not in time. “She passed away before he got there,” Daniel said.

Often, clients have been bamboozled out of retirement savings by close family members, betrayed by caretakers, evicted or foreclosed on. They need relocation or housing, but also someone to listen to them.

“We do,” Daniel said. “We try to minimize the fear and anxiety that they often come through the door with.”

Just about everyone enters in a state of trauma and betrayal, followed by surprise that this nice estate, with its catered meals and laundry services, is just for them.

Daniel is the only onsite employee, but is aided by a rotation of soft-speaking volunteers who help develop “reality-based” plans to address the gamut—including abusive living situations, hacked Social Security accounts, reverse-mortgage schemes and self-neglect.

Meanwhile, financial elder abuse has become the leading crime against Sacramento seniors.

According to APS program manager Ruth MacKenzie, her office investigated 5,494 allegations last year, 28 percent of which were of a financial nature, which is a record. “Financial abuse, for the first time locally, had the greatest number of allegations,” she said. “So financial is our top dog.”

Previous honors fell under the umbrella of health and safety, MacKenzie said.

Most elder abuse cases are also very personal.

“We’re not talking stranger crimes here,” said Detective Sgt. Dean Bowen of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. “We’re talking sons, daughters, grandkids, nieces, nephews.”

This is also why victims are sometimes reluctant to pursue criminal prosecution, even when the betrayal has been found out. Daniel cites a mix of shame and denial that someone so close to them could be using them. In these instances, Bowen said he backs off: “We don’t force people to be a victim.”

Without the safe house, the options for mistreated seniors will be even fewer.

“We do rely on this facility when we come into contact with seniors who need immediate housing,” said Debra J. Morrow, chief of senior and adult services for the county. “We are actively talking with others in the community, with the aim of finding ways to preserve this option for some of our clients.”

Holderegger acknowledged that charity-in-crisis fatigue might be setting in. She promised the VOA would refund every donation if it falls short of its goal.

“Don’t count on that,” Daniel interjected. “We will be open.”