Updated Feb. 25, 12:30 p.m.–
With rain drops falling on a stormy February afternoon, about two dozen homeless men and women began arriving at a temporary “intake center” set up at Messiah Lutheran Church in Citrus Heights.
Familiar “guests” were checked in using simple paper identification cards with a photo, and newcomers were screened for alcohol and drugs before having a picture taken and an ID created. After checking in, the homeless guests could be seen chatting while seated around a half-dozen round tables, waiting for a van to arrive and transport them to an area church for a meal and overnight stay.
At 6 p.m., guests piled into a large passenger van owned by The Way Ministries and took off for a baptist church in Carmichael, which had agreed to host the homeless for a week.
“Dig in,” said Dave Brown, pastor of The Church on Cypress, after leading a short prayer before the meal. Salad bowls were placed at each table, and guests lined up to be served a hot meal — with chicken enchiladas cooked by Pastor Brown and served up by volunteers.
Following the meal, guests checked in with a volunteer to be assigned a cot and sleeping bag for the night, with each item numbered and documented on a paper spreadsheet. By 10 p.m., lights were required to be out and guests looked forward to breakfast being served the next morning before being transported back to the intake center.
The effort was part of a first-ever “Winter Sanctuary,” a seven-week program coordinated by the Citrus Heights Homeless Assistance Resource Team (HART), a local nonprofit made up of various public and private organizations and volunteers. The group’s mission is to “provide resources that will enable at risk people and people experiencing homelessness in Citrus Heights and adjacent areas to become independent, self-sustaining and participating members of the community.”
There are three other HART’s in the region, with Elk Grove and Rancho Cordova HART’s serving as a model for Citrus Heights, and a newly formed Carmichael HART being launched in the past year.
The inaugural seven-week shelter was held from Dec. 26 through Feb. 11, 2017, with homeless guests taken to a total of five different area churches who each agreed to host the homeless on site for a week. Three of the churches were located in Citrus Heights — Holy Family Catholic Church, Celtic Cross Presbyterian Church, and Advent Lutheran Church — while two churches in Carmichael agreed to take on a total of three weeks, after hearing of an urgent need for more host churches.
Getting off the ground
Although organizers view the first-ever winter shelter effort in the city as a success, the effort almost didn’t get off the ground.
Mark Holt, a deacon at Holy Family Catholic Church in Citrus Heights, helped spearhead the shelter program and said he “almost pulled the plug” on the program in November, when he only had two host churches lined up to cover three of the seven weeks.
Beginning last May, the deacon said he worked to contact local churches to line up facilities to host the seven-week program, but although contacting churches by mail, in person, phone, and email, the deacon said he was lucky if he even got a phone call back. Thanks to the help of neighboring churches on short notice, the program was still able to have host facilities each week, but Holt is hopeful to find more host churches in the city for next year’s shelter.
The rotating shelter also faced limitations when more homeless showed up than the shelter was able to handle. One volunteer expressed a “heartbreaking” moment, when he had to turn away a homeless man in the rain, due to the program only being able to help up to 20 homeless guests each night.
“We’re just barely hitting the tip,” said Deacon Holt in an interview, referencing the number of homeless the shelter helped contrasted with a Citrus Heights police survey that identified a total of 192 individuals as homeless or associated with homelessness within the city.
The 2016 survey also found that 58 percent of those included in the survey self-identified as having a drug or alcohol addiction — a problem faced by the shelter, which turned away individuals who didn’t meet the requirement to be drug and alcohol-free.
“We’ve got some pretty strict rules,” said Holt. “Very simple respectful rules, but we’ve found people have some issues with that — and if you can’t follow the rules, then you’re on the streets.”
Although having an immediate goal to provide temporary shelter for those without homes in the winter, HART’s ultimate mission is to help the homeless find permanent housing. Getting the often-roving homeless population in one room proved to be a helpful tool towards that end.
The City of Citrus Heights partnered with HART in its housing endeavor, funding a “navigator” charged with the task of connecting homeless with public services. The navigator visited the shelter once a week, helping homeless get state ID’s and housing counseling.
Navigator Lauren Juskelis told The Sentinel 30 homeless guests received housing counseling, 11 were provided transportation through rides or a bus pass, and 10 shelter guests were given fee-waiver vouchers for applying for a state ID or drivers license.
Also on The Sentinel: Local ministry offers low-cost RV rentals to house homeless
Katherine Cooley, a HART leader and development specialist with the City of Citrus Heights, said five guests are also now in the process of getting housing through Volunteers of America’s “Rapid Re-housing” program. She also said several shelter volunteers worked on an individual basis to connect homeless with housing through local ministries, like The Way Ministries’ Grace House.
Asked whether homeless were also helped with finding employment, Cooley said the city-funded navigator was “not really” focused with providing employment services. She said the navigator was focused on getting homeless housed and connecting guests with social security, public assistance, and bus passes.
“While the city sent our homeless navigator to the shelter, the success of the shelter is due to HART,” said Cooley, referencing volunteer work and contributions of churches. “The city, we didn’t do it — they did it.”
In the end, organizers estimate over 900 volunteers assisted with the shelter, with about 400 volunteers coming from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, according to Deacon Holt.
Over the 48-night shelter period, organizers said as many as 70 different homeless individuals participated in the program, ranging from age 18 to 70. Volunteers were encouraged to sit down during dinner and meet with homeless guests, talk to them, and find out their story.
Volunteers interviewed by The Sentinel repeatedly said their most memorable experience in helping at the shelter was sitting down with homeless guests and hearing their unique stories and backgrounds.
Volunteer Irene Hronicek highlighted the effort as a winter “sanctuary” rather than just a “shelter.” She noted the personal aspect of the effort was “more than just a roof over the head,” with volunteers sitting down to chat with homeless guests during evening meals.
“We became part of their community,” said volunteer Dick Bartlett, noting the level of personal involvement in the program. “They know our names, we know their names.”
Deacon Holt pointed out the youngest guest, age 18, who he said was likely kicked out of his parents house for alcohol or drug abuse. He was reportedly placed in Grace House for temporary housing and rehab.
Another guest was 60-years-old and chronically homeless for 30 years, with no plans to try to get off the streets.
Other homeless guests served at the shelter included a man and his mother, who attended the shelter every night — while others came only for a few nights. Holt said a volunteer ended up taking the man to an interview with a regional water district, and other guests were offered employment by at least one volunteer.
The shelter was not without its critics however. Holt said objections had been raised by some community members who were concerned the shelter would attract more homeless and crime to the area.
Asked whether police had observed an increase in homeless-related calls for service during the shelter period, Lt. Jason Russo told The Sentinel he was “not aware of any increase,” but said a study had not been conducted.
In January, the lieutenant said calls for service related to camps and loitering went down compared to December, but noted that rain could also have contributed to the difference observed.
In prior years, Mayor Jeff Slowey expressed skepticism about whether funding a navigator would be a worthwhile investment for the city, but after hearing the results of a pilot program in the prior fiscal year, he called the navigator “a phenomenal success.” He has also expressed opposition in the past to building a permanent shelter in Citrus Heights, commenting in several public meetings that “if you build it, they will come.”
Asked about the temporary shelter provided by HART, Slowey told The Sentinel in an email last week that he is not opposed to “sheltering the disadvantaged,” but is not in favor of a permanent shelter in Citrus Heights, as he said “there are many places that already offer that service today.”
Slowey said HART had done “an excellent job” with the shelter program and also praised faith-based communities who “stepped up and did what they do best – put others ahead of themselves.”
He said the city would be continuing its support for HART, but said he “will continue [to] tread very cautiously when spending taxpayer dollars on this topic and will make sure there are measurable results and outcomes.”
Reflections and future plans
Looking to next year’s shelter, Deacon Holt said HART is hopeful to line up a total of nine local churches — a goal he believes will be possible through more advance notice and connections made during the first shelter period.
“It’s been a huge success from our perspective,” said Holt, reflecting on the group’s first shelter season. “It’s a band-aid, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Want to share your thoughts on homelessness in Citrus Heights? Click here to submit a letter to the editor.