COVID freezes out warming center

St. Paul’s says it will not open its emergency warming shelter this winter due to increased spread of the coronavirus as council hears from faith-based nonprofits serving the homeless

VISALIA – After going seven months without COVID-19 seriously affecting the homeless community, it finally happened at the worst time in the most unexpected way.

Reverend Suzy Ward of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church announced at the Nov. 16 Visalia City Council meeting the church would not be able to serve as an emergency warming center this winter. The parish hall has served as a low-barrier shelter on freezing nights from December through February for the last three years. The first frost-bitten nights of the year returned late last month.

“We were running 70-80 people per night on average and some nights over 100 people,” Ward said. “That’s what concerns me.”

Ward said the church was not large enough to accommodate enough people while maintaining social distancing, she was unable to secure a building large enough to do so and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has recommended against congregate warming centers over fears of the spread of COVID-19.

“We won’t help as many people as we normally have,” Ward said. “This is not the answer we want but it’s a matter of space.”

Instead of funding a warming center, Ward will use the remaining $100,000 of a two-year grant from the Kings-Tulare Homeless Alliance to purchase hotel vouchers for “20-25 of our most desperate clients.”

Similar to Project Room Key, Ward said the vouchers would pay for a hotel room for about six weeks. She said the money would also include additional security for the hotel/motel and case management services for those being sheltered there.

Ward said her program was meeting the neediest of the homeless population at their level. Of the 503 individuals who slept at least one night at St. Paul’s last year, 329 had never made contact with any other program, according to the Kings-Tulare Homeless Alliance’s database.

“For some this is their first contact,” Ward said.

Last year the church partnered with Kaweah Delta’s Street Medicine program to offer health screenings, provide medications and make appointments for those seeking shelter there on three nights during the weight weeks the warming center was open. The church also had regular visits from Adult Protective Services, Tulare County Mental Health and Family Services of Tulare County to provide homeless individuals with wrap-around services.

Ward said St. Paul’s is still looking at larger buildings to lease next winter and have created a non-profit to seek additional funding for a warming center.

“We are committed to this work,” she said.

Foundational work

Ward’s announcement came during the third and final city council study session on the multi-faceted issue of homelessness. St. Paul’s was one of four faith-based organizations that have been working longer than anyone on serving the city’s homeless. While St. Paul’s provides shelter during the winter, Visalia Rescue Mission provides shelter year-round, including during the day when temperatures drop below 40 degrees and in the summer when they rise to more than 102. Executive director Al Oliver said the rescue mission was established in 1981 and houses about 1,000 individuals throughout the year at its two downtown shelters, one for men and one for women and children. The Men’s Shelter can accommodate 50 men in a single night while the Women and Children’s Shelter of Hope provides beds for 40 people.

“Our primary focus is on spiritual, physical, social, emotional in three areas: Rescue, Recovery and Restoration,” Oliver said.

Individuals can stay up to 90 days at the rescue mission as long as they agree to case management services. If they refuse case management, they are asked to leave for 45 days. Those seeking long-term shelter can stay up to a year if they enroll in VRM’s Life Change Academy, a Christ-centered program focusing on improving the mental, physical and spiritual health of men and women struggling with life issues and chemical dependencies. The one-year residential program can be extended to a thirteenth month for apprentice/transitional opportunities. Oliver said graduates have gone on to be welders, custodians and educators, just to name a few vocations. The program also includes professional counseling, special events, recreation and activity and community events, to re-establish a “productive rhythm of a healthy community life.” None of VRM’s programs rely on government funding.

“Funding is solely from generous donors in our community and from funds generated by our social enterprises,” Oliver said. “We are not eligible for government funding because we are a Christian Gospel organization. Clearly articulable purpose with the whole of Visalia will be the beneficiary.”

Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen and Councilmember Phil Cox applauded VRM for insulating itself from the pitfalls of grant and public funding.

“When you’re looking to government to get involved and take a hold of something you are going down the wrong path,” Nelsen said. “If you’re government funded, I question the viability of the program as it goes through its lifespan.”

VRM also serves two meals daily to anyone who comes through the doors, a number that nearly reached 114,000 in 2019. The Catholic counterpart to that is the Bethlehem Center, whose sole focus is to provide food to those in need. Formerly known as Sister Ursula’s Kitchen, the soup kitchen turned food bank was established in 1985. Since 2011, the Bethlehem Center has been operated by the Good Shepherd Catholic Parish in Visalia.

Deacon Henry Medina, director of administration, said the Bethlehem Center primarily serves the homeless population at the St. John’s River and those numbers have increased rapidly in the last two years. He said 14% of those they serve are new to the city and many of them are children.

“It’s very difficult to see the children come just to get food,” Medina said. “We do our best to provide the best nutrients we can provide.”

The center is serving an estimated 7,000 pounds of food each week but needs about 10,000 pounds, which includes about 250 sack lunches per week being delivered to hotels as part of the county’s Project Room Key, where vacant hotels are being converted into temporary housing for the homeless. Whenever it can, Medina said the Bethlehem Center is sharing its food at distribution points in Goshen and Farmersville.

“I think we probably do a better job than In-N-Out burger of serving our clients,” Medina quipped.

Men struggling with addiction can seek sanctuary in search of sobriety at My Father’s House. Executive director Kurt Salierno began his ministry to the homeless over 40 years ago. An ordained minister of over 25 years, Salierno said the sober-living facility offers a transitional living space rewarding men who accomplish their goals as incentive to the real world. My Father’s House currently has eight homes serving 52 men and has transitioned 100 men into their own apartments.

“The end result is to move men into their own homes,” he said.

Reframing the issue

While the council praised the stalwarts for their service, they also recognized the start-ups for their innovation. Adriann Hillman, founder of Salt + Light, discussed her faith-based nonprofit’s plan to create a homeless village of tiny homes. Salt + Light’s mission is to create an intentional community that lifts Tulare County’s chronically homeless neighbors off the streets. Their goal is to reinvent the perception people have about the chronically homeless, revitalize local communities by offering palliative relief to the homeless, reawaken the homeless to a sense of purpose and value through partnering with them; reconnect a human-to-human experience; and renew lifestyles of abundance by inspiring people to offer their best.

“We believe housing alone will never solve homelessness, but community will,” Hillman said. “We feel like it requires relationships and services on site and creating community with their neighbors.”

Modeled after Community First Village in Austin, Texas, the village will include a community kitchen, wash house, park, health clinic, library, chapel, art studio, garden, farm and auto shop. And it won’t just be for the homeless. Hillman said there will also be missional residents who, in addition to fostering community, will keep an eye on the community overnight when service providers head home. The biggest challenge is finding a location for the village, but Hillman was happy to report Salt + Light is in discussions and ready to sign memorandum of understanding for the first phase of the project with a ground breaking sometime next year.

“These newest organizations are moving in right direction,” Councilmember Brian Poochigian said. “The Rescue Mission and Bethlehem Center, everyone knows their great work, but this new direction is very fresh and will help us move in the right direction.”

Hillman said a key component to making Salt + Light effective is the continuation of TC Hope. That group’s primary focus is to build a $2.5 million low-barrier navigation center. The center would provide more than 100 beds for men, women and families but more importantly provide a year-round location where those getting off the street can find mental health and recovery counseling services and primary care and direct them to programs that fit their needs to help them transition out of the shelter. The shelter has already announced it will partner with CSET to operate the facility with annual costs estimated to be about $900,000.

“It’s only part of the solution,” said Judee Berg, president of TC Hope. “But it is an important piece that fills a gap between the street and permanent housing.”

Berg the facility is modeled after 40 Prado, named after its street address in San Luis Obispo, Calif., which served over 38,000 people last year as part of the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County. Berg said the organization provided TC Hope with its architectural drawings and engineering plans to save time and money.

“We are going to replicate what we can and modify what we can’t,” Berg said. “It’s going to take a lot partners and support to make this happen. We think we already have a strong start but need to build on that and continue to strengthen partners.”

Hillman said TC Hope might play the most crucial role of all the city’s homeless service providers as they will be the clearinghouse for every individual’s needs.

“TC Hope is like Grand Central Station, and we are a destination,” Hillman said.

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