Part 2 of a series on homelessness. For Part 1, Causes of Homelessness, click here.
Caltrans’ unceremonious cleanup at an encampment at its Concord Park and Ride lot attracted the interests of local television in late December. But far from the glare of the camera lights, more creative and compassionate efforts have taken root through the years to complement local government resources to address homelessness.
Yet even backers of these good-hearted efforts say they are being stretched thin and government needs to shoulder a greater burden to counteract the persistent problem.
“We are kind of tapping out,” said Jo Kerner, a volunteer grant writer for more than 10 years and the Winter Nights representative to the Social Justice Alliance of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County.
“I don’t know much more we can do,” Kerner added. “This is a community problem. We have just tapped the surface.”
No argument there from Jaime Jenett, community engagement specialist with Contra Costa County, who is pleased to see the state starting to put more money toward the homeless.
But the challenge remains to find funding resources for shelters on an ongoing basis.
A growing shelter system
There are three clearly defined avenues by which homeless can enter the system to gain services to address their barriers to housing: dialing 211, walking into one of three care centers (Richmond, Concord and Walnut Creek) in the county and meeting with the county CORE (Coordinated Outreach, Referral and Engagement) teams.
“We advise any homeless person to take advantage of the local municipalities’ social service programs,” said Julie Clemens, director of development for Shelter Inc.
Winter Nights has operated its emergency mobile shelter for homeless families since 2004, and its host congregations have grown from 17 to more than 40.
Beginning in early September and concluding June 15, about 3,000 volunteers contribute their time, talents and gifts to make the mobile emergency shelter possible, said Kerner.
Use of parking lots is another idea developed to address the needs of homeless residents who live in their cars but desire a safe place. Separate funding supports a parking lot from January to April that can accommodate 15 cars, and the users don’t have to be part of a family.
According to Kerner, everyone who comes to the parking lot undergoes the same vetting as those in the mobile church shelter program. This alternative addresses those who are reluctant to go into a shelter because they fear their children will be taken away.
“Living in the cars is not safe and not good for kids, but this was the best they could do,” she said.
More aid for families
Winter Nights tailors a plan with each family based on their needs, from financial and credit services to mental health services to employment assistance through resume development and East Bay Works.
Families are coming into Winter Nights pretty traumatized after being on the streets, couch surfing with friends or living in a motel for a time.
“It is not always a smooth journey for them,” Kerner said.
Because more births have been a trend in recent years, a new service offers moms and dads a week in a motel after the birth and leaving the hospital. “This gives them a chance to bond as a family before going back into the mobile shelter,” Kerner said.
The reality for Winter Nights is the families it is accommodating are staying longer due to the lack of housing for those it serves.
“We’re doing what we can, and we are doing pretty well,” Kerner said of the emergency shelter.
Other outlets providing help
About 25 percent of the homeless prevention clients served by Shelter Inc. receive intensive case management services in addition to limited financial assistance.
Similar to Winter Nights, each Shelter Inc. family creates a self-sufficiency action plan with written goals and objectives to help them move toward economic stability. Using a combination of financial support, case management and individualized strategies, it helps families and individuals in crisis maintain or obtain housing, achieve greater stability and make progress toward self-sufficiency.
Shelter Inc., like other organizations, continues to seek ways to bolster its offerings. Many staff members participate in the annual Point In Time Count of homeless who live “on the streets.” It also has an outreach worker who returns to encampments to encourage entry to shelters and programs to regain self-sufficiency in housing.
Support services include tutoring from credentialed teachers for adults and children living at the Mountain View Emergency Shelter in Martinez, mental health counseling, the Positive Parenting Program that promotes healthy relationships and providing family workshops that foster the importance of healthy, nutritious meals.
Shelters of Hope, new this past fall with funds from Veteran Affairs, is another bridge for veterans struggling with homelessness. Shelter Inc. currently offers three homes in Contra Costa County, including one on the Concord-Pleasant Hill border.
This kind of transitional housing is necessary because veterans often have a housing voucher but haven’t found a place to accept it yet. They also may be working on health issues and increasing their income to stabilize into permanent housing.
“Our shelters and services are collaborative relationships where the participants work with case managers to establish their own goals to increase employment income through training programs, learn budgeting techniques, and find the most affordable and appropriate housing to suit their particular situation,” Clemens said.
Trinity Center in Walnut Creek takes a membership-based approach in serving chronically homeless adults. More than 25 percent of the homeless going through the center are from Concord.
First, they conduct an interview to figure out the individual’s particular needs. Then, if the person is willing to commit to Trinity’s program, a more in-depth dive follows, said Donna Colombo, founder and advisor.
She said Trinity aims to provide “a sense of ownership” to make progress toward “helping homeless to help themselves.”
As further incentive to commit, it offers program participants a parking lot for their vehicles and can currently accommodate 10 cars. “The goal is working on a stable living environment and not be in a vehicle,” she said.
The central county effort is centered in a strip mall along Arnold Industrial Way, with three adjacent operations.
The evening Concord shelter provides beds for 120 days, the county-run Philip Dorn Respite Center caters to the medically fragile who have been discharged from a medical provider and the CARE center run by the Berkeley Food and Housing Project offers daytime services Monday through Friday.
Warming centers are an example of how the county’s Health, Housing, and Homeless Services Division is thinking creatively about the most effective uses of available resources. So the CARE (Coordinated Assessment, Referral and Engagement) center is now open in the evenings too and has 30 beds available one night at a time. Access only occurs through CORE, which people can reach by dialing 211.
The county’s CORE outreach teams have been in place for nearly three years. They are charged with prioritizing those who need the spots in the shelters as part of efforts to help clients begin the process of accessing services.
Just a handful of CORE teams were operating when the county program began. Now there are 12 teams, and two more are coming soon.
The cities of Concord and Walnut Creek are partnering to fund half the cost of a CORE team that serves on the front lines in their communities. Beyond this, Jenett acknowledge it is a tall order for cities of this size to do any more. Direct services can be too complicated for smaller cities, she said, unlike places like Oakland that can “braid a bunch of resources together.”
Jenett noted that the greater coordinated effort taking hold is a result of improved communication among entities providing services. The majority receive federal funding and are required to input data into the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), which enables agencies to share information.
“This helps us to understand the demographics and what the needs are,” even if the county cannot provide services right now, said Jenett. She expects HMIS expansion will occur naturally as agencies understand the bigger system of care.
As the years have gone by, Jenett has seen less finger-pointing among stakeholders.
“There is more recognition that it takes more than one single entity to fix the problem,” she said. “It is going to require a lot of those partners for lasting solutions. We must maximize the resources we have.”
Helping bring dignity
Jenett lauded the Bay Church for its laundry and shower services as an example of the creative solutions that continue to be devised.
The church’s Compassion Outreach effort began the Clean Start program in 2013, with its main focus being to provide free laundry services to the homeless.
“Our guests got two free loads of laundry, a hot meal and even got to pick out new clothes and shoes,” said director Carey Gregg.
But that was just the beginning, as coordinators thought the people being served would benefit from being able to put clean clothes on a clean body. Hence, the shower concept was launched.
Gregg said this dream became a reality when someone’s idea was backed by another’s financial contribution, and yet someone else came up with a practical of way of delivering the shower trailer.
“In a tangible way, we offer a hot shower, haircuts, hygiene products and a smiling face,” said Gregg. “In a non-tangible, but just as important way, we aim to offer a chance for dignity, a ray of hope and the message that each person is precious and has value in God’s eyes.
The Clean Start showers serve once a week in Martinez. On average, 20-25 people receive a 15-minute shower, plus shampoo, conditioner, soap, towels, prayer and friendship. Compassion Outreach’s grassroots effort is also joining forces with Winter Nights by providing the Clean Start services to families.
“This is Clean Start – a place where we don’t try to change anyone. We just show up with a heart willing to serve,” Gregg added.
For the past six years, Laundry Basket volunteers do laundry for those in need on the third Saturday of the month in Martinez. About 35-40 people each get two loads of laundry done, plus a hot meal, toiletries, prayer and friendship.
Feeding the hungry
Services for the area homeless also benefit from the recent distribution of Rice Bowl grants from Catholic Relief Services. Concord organizations receiving funds include Monument Crisis Center, the Sister Rose Carroll Ministry and Christ Community Church of the Nazarene.
In December, the Monument Crisis Center distributed 150 sleeping bags and 150 tarps, as well as gloves, scarves, hats and socks to the area homeless. Operations manager Yolanda Gonzalez said they will use the funds to add little extras like hot chocolate and coffee to twice monthly food boxes. Looking ahead, she pointed to the inclusion of more ready-to-eat items with longer shelf life because of the instability and irregularity that homeless residents face.
The one-person road show of the Sister Rose Carroll Ministry, in which the 80-year-old namesake tirelessly distributes food from her car to those living on the street, may be small but no less important. Some of her allotment comes from St. Bonaventure’s food pantry, while she buys things like fresh fruit with donations and grants.
As she goes about her day, she learns how those on the streets came to that point because of circumstances like losing a job, which meant not having the salary to pay for housing or a car.
“My transportation is limited, but I enjoy it and l love it. I am happy that I have fed many people so they are not hungry for at least a day,” Sister Carroll said of her nearly 20 years of service that seems destined to continue motoring on.