Community, Religion

Winter shelter for homeless underway in Citrus Heights; volunteers sought

Sentinel staff report–
Last Monday began the first of a 55-night rotating shelter at area churches for homeless in Citrus Heights. Through Feb. 24, up to 20 homeless are able to grab a hot meal and warm place to stay thanks to the overnight hospitality of various congregations and numerous volunteers.

The effort is part of an eight-week “Winter Sanctuary” program coordinated by the Citrus Heights Homeless Assistance Resource Team (HART), a local nonprofit made up of various public and private organizations, churches, and volunteers. The shelter program relies heavily on the involvement of area churches, with various congregations offering to host the homeless overnight for a week and additional volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and other area ministries also offering staffing help.

“We offer a hot meal, a dry place to sleep, and a to-go meal in an environment that helps [the homeless] connect to caring people and services to help them on a path out of homelessness,” said Irene Hronicek, who serves on the board of HART and is helping coordinate this year’s shelter. While at the shelter, she said homeless guests, as they are referred to by volunteers, will also be offered help from Alcoholics Anonymous, free health checkups from a mobile Elica Health Center van, domestic violence resources from A Community for Peace, and housing counseling and assistance by a homeless “navigator” from Sacramento Self-Help Housing.

The shelter kicked off last year for the first time in Citrus Heights with a seven-week rotating shelter, which has now expanded to eight weeks for 2018.

This year’s temporary shelter came just in time for rain on Wednesday, offering a dry place to stay at Holy Family Catholic Church on Old Auburn Road, which hosted the first week of the shelter program. Despite the rain, however, only one homeless person showed up to the shelter on the first night, and by Wednesday the shelter only hosted four homeless overnight.

“We thought there’d be more,” Hronicek said, noting that hundreds of fliers had been passed out to announce the shelter. “But the weather is so mild right now, so a dry place to stay is maybe not as big of a deal.”

Compared to last year, the shelter also started out with smaller numbers, but overgrew capacity by February when volunteers even had to turn one guest away in the rain. Hronicek noted the weather was colder last year, and 2017 also began with a heavy downpour from a pair of “atmospheric rivers” that caused minor flooding in Citrus Heights.

Another reason some homeless avoided the shelter in the past has been HART’s rules, which includes a no drug and alcohol policy. Guests must also show up each night at an intake site at Messiah Lutheran Church between 5-6 p.m. in order to be taken by a van to the host church. The shelter is also unable to accept homeless who have pets, due to facility limitations.

Although having more than enough volunteers to staff the initial weeks, shelter organizers said volunteers are still being sought as “night owls” — a term referring to the overnight shift at the host facility. A host church for the fifth week is also still up in the air.

Hronicek said it’s been difficult finding churches who will agree to be a host location, and said rotating shifts between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. require about 20 volunteers to be lined up each night.

“20 people, 7 nights a week; it’s a burden,” she said.

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 — and getting the often-roving homeless population in one room has proved to be helpful towards that end.

The City of Citrus Heights has partnered with HART in its housing endeavor by providing funding for a full-time homeless navigator, charged with the task of connecting homeless with public services. During last year’s shelter, the navigator said 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.

Once the shelter program concludes in February, HART is also seeking churches or landlords in Citrus Heights that are willing to have their rental property serve as transitional housing for homeless. Those interested in volunteering for HART or the winter shelter are invited to contact the organization through their website at www.citrusheightshart.org.

For more about the shelter program, see last year’s extended article published here: Winter Shelter: churches, volunteers help homeless off Citrus Heights streets.