A place for everyone

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

On Dec. 3, homeless advocates and local law enforcement were at the triangular patch of grass just south of Humboldt Avenue encouraging folks camping there, like Mama Rose Adams, to relocate to the newly opened pop-up shelter at First Christian Church.

For the past four years, Rick Narad has dedicated his time during the coldest months of the year at Chico’s Safe Space Winter Shelter. He’s been behind the scenes, brainstorming operation plans, policies and volunteer positions, as well as on the ground, helping homeless people check in, store their belongings and stay safe and warm for the night.

For him, the work Safe Space does is guided by a clear, succinct mission: “People shouldn’t sleep outside when it’s cold and wet,” he said, matter-of-factly. “We are doing things for the people who need it the most. … They’re going to die if we don’t do this.”

Now in its fifth season, this will be Safe Space’s first separated from its parent organization, Chico Housing Action Team, which has shifted its focus to permanent and transitional housing via its Housing Now and Simplicity Village projects. (See “Ready to roll,” Newslines, Nov. 29.) Narad, who is a Chico State professor as well as an attorney, took care of Safe Space’s nonprofit incorporation and tax approval.

That “friendly divorce” over differing missions hasn’t been the newly minted nonprofit’s greatest challenge, however. Lately, its 10-member board, which was solidified in September, has been scrambling to anticipate the increased need for shelter after the Camp Fire.

According to the 2017 Butte County homeless census, 120 people in Paradise were homeless. Moreover, with nearly 14,000 homes leveled and a county already in the grips of a housing crisis, the shelter team anticipates that will mean a growth of the local homeless population.

“There are people who were living on the edge who are going to be priced out and they’re going to be living on the street,” Narad said. “What the Paradise situation is going to show us is how many people are one paycheck away from being homeless. The people who we think are deserving or not deserving could be us, very easily.”

In the meantime, Safe Space is dealing with logistical hiccups: It doesn’t have the facilities to cover its typical 12 weeks of operation.

The nonprofit’s greatest challenge has always been “real estate, real estate, real estate,” said facilities manager Deanna Schwab. The hurdles include finding a sufficient location that’s the right size while also being affordable. Because of this, Safe Space has rotated among local churches.

This season, three of the churches it historically called on are being used as temporary classrooms for displaced students, Schwab said. Its original plan to open Sunday (Dec. 16) will be like pulling “a rabbit out of hat,” she said. It’s more likely it’ll open a week later, on Dec. 23.

This is significant because there are chronically homeless folks who have been staying at various disaster shelters, waiting for Safe Space to open, Schwab said. That includes an American Red Cross shelter at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, which opened Nov. 30. As of press time, there were 712 people there, with no set date for closure, according to Red Cross spokesman Stephen Walsh.

On Dec. 3, volunteers and advocates from multiple organizations opened a low-barrier pop-up shelter at First Christian Church using Safe Space’s model, funded by a grant from the Red Cross. Their mission was to take in many of the chronically homeless folks who had joined displaced survivors in a tent city in an empty field near Walmart—many of whom moved to the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds—as well as the grassy triangular patch of land bordered by Humboldt Avenue and Cypress and Pine streets.

Volunteer Siana Sonoquie said the intent was to provide a safe, warm space during the cold, wet winter nights leading up to Safe Space’s opening. They’ve had about 40 people the past few nights, and the shelter will be open until Dec. 14.

Safe Space was in high demand before the Camp Fire. Last year, volunteers had to turn away an average of five people per night because there wasn’t enough room, said Narad, the Chico State professor. They typically have enough space for 60 guests per night.

There is a silver lining: Late last month, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation announced a $1 million donation “to help address the increased needs of the local homeless population.”

North Valley Community Foundation will manage the money, “which will support organizations like the Jesus Center, Torres Community Shelter, Safe Space Winter Shelter, Chico-based community organizations that are addressing the needs of Camp Fire survivors and increasing support services for chronically homeless individuals in the community,” according to a press release.

Exactly how that money will be disbursed remains to be seen. The Jesus Center, Torres Shelter and Safe Space have been working together to figure it out, with the goal of establishing a permanent, year-round low-barrier shelter as soon as possible, which has been Safe Space’s No. 1 priority.

Safe Space board President Angela McLaughlin said the organization is eyeing property in central Chico and “it looks like there’s a real possibility” it could be set up in that capacity for at least a year.

There’s also the $4.9 million coming from the state because the region declared a shelter crisis earlier this year.

Until then, the nonprofit plans on doing everything it can to help all homeless folks, sheltering as many people in need as it can, Narad said. In the past, homeless guests have told volunteers they appreciate the shelter because “you don’t judge us and you don’t try to fix us,” Schwab said, and, “it’s the first time I’ve felt like not everyone hates us.”

Narad added: “It’s meeting a really important human need.”