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Helter Shelter

[whitespace] George Hillery Port in a Storm: George Hillery prepares to settle in for the night at one of the churches that host the Interfaith Satellite Shelter Program.

George Sakkestad

Problems with the county's homeless services can't be fixed with money alone

By Kelly Luker

IT'S THE WAITING that sucks the life out of you. Any time of day, it's there--the line for the showers, the line for dinner, the line to sign up for a roof over your head. Once you're signed up, the wait begins all over again.

We sit at the worn picnic tables at the back of the Homeless Services Center--The Lot, as it's called--making small talk, waiting until we can find some shelter for the night. We get up and pace, idly watching a handful of teens kick a hackysack around. The clock reads 1pm, and the first of the vans won't start showing up for another three and a half hours to shuttle us to a church somewhere in the county.

Katie and Susan drift into the "back bay," a former auto shop that houses the showers and recreation hall, to escape the chill wind that threatens rain, maybe grab a few winks before it's time to leave. But sleep loses in a deafening battle against the blaring TV and stereo, babies crying and dozens of folks milling, screaming, laughing and arguing. A few of the women sport short, stubby hair, evidence of trying to rid themselves of the bay's recurring population of head lice.

Finally, the vans begin to show. But there's not enough room, so we wait some more until they drop off one group somewhere in the county and eventually return.

"Group three," the lot manager hollers. "Group four." It's our turn and we're off to a church, maybe on High Street, maybe in Scotts Valley, maybe in Aptos.

A glance at the cheap wristwatch reads 5pm, and the countdown to lights-out begins--though it's still five hours away.

Soup to Nuts

THE HOMELESS Services Center is the final safety net for men, women and families that have slipped through every other crack in the system. Drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, mental illness, joblessness and just plain hard luck have booted these folks from an address with a mailbox to the streets. Their ranks are sprinkled with the perennial free spirits, bums and tramps, and kids who want a taste of slumming before they head back to their split-levels in Willow Glen or Pasatiempo.

The Homeless Services Center is a combination of programs that merged last summer, offering help such as job placement and case management as well as residential facilities for mental health and substance abuse problems. The center is also the county's largest emergency shelter provider, offering showers, food and clothing through the Homeless Community Resource Center and overnight shelter through the Interfaith Satellite Shelter Program (ISSP).

Over the past 14 years, the shelter program has opened its doors to everyone from babies to octogenarians, the psychotic to a psychiatrist, asking nothing in return but a minimal level of civility. The program often finds itself bandied about in heated debates about the quantity and quality of homeless sheltering in Santa Cruz. Promoters say no one is turned away. Detractors say it is not suitable for the fastest-growing segment of the homeless--families and women--because of favoritism, drug and alcohol use on church premises and safety concerns.

Both sides grudgingly admit the validity of their opponents' arguments, and both agree on one point: After so many years, and with a leadership transition imminent, it is time to address the problems of the county's emergency homeless services.


115 Coral Street can be a place to end up--
or a place to start over.


Life and Death

THE SHELTER PROGRAM offers no permanent, or year-round, shelter location, but uses The Lot on Coral Street near Harvey West Park (see page 9) as a starting point to bus up to 180 homeless people throughout the county to shelter for the evening. In the coldest months, four churches a night, as well as the National Guard armory in DeLaveaga Park, offer space. In the summer months, when apparently the need for a roof over one's head is no longer an "emergency," the armory is closed and shelter is provided by just two churches with space for 28 people.

The seeds of the Interfaith Satellite Shelter Program grew from a life-and-death situation, remembers co-founder Paul Lee. A UCSC professor and noted homeless activist, Lee says that he responded when a woman named Jane Imler vowed to fast to death unless shelter was provided to the homeless. Imler was on her 35th day when Lee and the late Page Smith opened a shelter on Cedar Street. It was during the winter of 1985, a year of horrendous storms, and the shelter quickly overflowed. Lee appealed to a friend, the Rev. Paul Pfotenhauer, to get his colleagues to open up their churches for overnight stays.

What began as a handful of churches grew to 40, including one synagogue. Although Lee says that some ministers were initially concerned about how their parish might respond, the results were gratifying. Congregants enthusiastically supported the idea and began signing up to bring meals for their guests.

"Page said it was God's response to the bourgeois blues of middle-class churches," Lee says with a laugh. "It became a big morale booster for them."

The program received another big boost in 1987, when Gov. George Deukmejian directed the California National Guard to open its armories as temporary shelters.

The shelter program was run by the Citizens Committee for the Homeless, until that program merged last July with the Community Homeless Resource Center, creating the umbrella Homeless Services Center. For the last nine months, it has been under the guidance of ISSP director Mike Bustos and HSC director Karen Gillette.

The program has saved many lives, providing food and shelter as well as a bridge to other services designed to get folks off the street. There is also the River Street Shelter for the dually diagnosed (those with mental illness and substance-abuse problems) and the recently opened Page Smith Community House, a long-term transitional clean-and-sober housing program.

During winter months, county churches working with the shelter program host two men's groups and two groups for women and families. But there are few families that want to use ISSP.

"It won't work for a family with children who are afraid of people who have mental health problems," says the Community Action Board's Shelter Project Program director Paul Rachuy Brindel. "Families with children, elderly people, disabled people are afraid to go to the ISSP program. It wasn't designed for them."

The shelter program has been dogged since its inception 14 years ago by other problems, including allegations of mismanagement, corruption and substance abuse problems. Although both Bustos and Gillette have worked hard to clean it up, they admit the program is still troubled.

Smokey would agree.

Monitors on the Blink

JOE "SMOKEY" DIECK sits on a low cement wall kitty-corner from The Lot, his cane propped nearby. He holds one of the ever-present smokes that lent him his nickname between two tar- and nicotine-blackened fingers. The limp is from a truck that backed into him; the tremors are from a serious booze habit. It's 9am, and Smokey needs a drink real bad. He'll take some time to talk first, before heading up to the booze stashed in his camp hidden in the Pogonip.

Smokey's been a church group monitor since December, not long after getting out of Leavenworth, where he says he served 22 years for gunning down an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Like virtually every other monitor, Smokey is homeless, relying on the HSC for food, medical attention, clothing and shelter. He's quick to point out he's not a "bum."

"I'm a tramp," Smokey says, explaining the difference. He doesn't have or want a home, but he won't panhandle.

Smokey is one of eight monitors--one for each of the four church groups and four for the armory. The monitors' duties begin on Coral Street, where those in need of shelter line up as early as 1pm to get on one of the church group lists. While some prefer the armory for its showers and canteen, far more want to get on with the church groups. Parishioners often outdo each other in bringing home-cooked meals for their overnight guests. And unlike the armory, where paid security stays until 1am to keep order, the churches only have monitors. Smokey admits, "We get a 12-pack of beer and go to the church group and kick back."

The pay is minimum wage, but it works for Smokey.

"I make $289 every two weeks just for sleeping," he figures.

Joe 'Smokey' Dieck
George Sakkestad

Smoke Out: Former church shelter program monitor Joe 'Smokey' Dieck says he was assaulted for airing ISSP problems.

The monitors are there to prevent problems like substance abuse, violence or vandalism on church grounds, but that may be a little hard if the monitors themselves are drinking or using--or if, like Smokey, they come from a life of violence and crime. Several interviews indicate that monitors like Smokey are more common than the program administrators would like to admit.

And although access to the church groups is supposed to be on a first-come, first-served basis, with preference given to the disabled, ill and elderly, many clients interviewed for this story say they have resigned themselves to a harsh reality: getting a spot in a church group is easier if you're tight with the monitor.

"One of the biggest things I'd change [about the program] is the favoritism," admits shelter program coordinator Jeremy Jilka. Like Bustos and Gillette, Jilka is aware of the problems, but admits that in his two years working for the program, nine months as its coordinator, he has never spent the night with one of the church groups. Both Jilka and his supervisor, Mike Bustos, say they drop in on church groups randomly to check up on them, but of five monitors interviewed, none remembers a visit from administrative staff in the last two years.

There is also a supply of donated clothes for those who need or want them. But they don't always make it to the neediest.

Mike Miller now works at the Salvation Army recycling center in Ben Lomond. He used the services of the Resource Center for two and a half years after he lost his house following an extended period of poor health. He says that the shelter program gave him a "new lease on life." But he observed that there was a problem with donations.

"People bring in stuff and people in charge make off with it," says Miller.

Clients frequently complain that monitors have first choice of donated goods and will sometimes sell them. But like many allegations about monitors and staff, this one is difficult to prove. For one thing, those still using the shelter or Resource Center will not publicly accuse monitors, fearing retaliation.

There may be some truth to that. Within days after speaking to Metro Santa Cruz, Smokey Dieck found himself in the hospital with a broken arm, broken ribs and a ruptured lung after being jumped by two assailants, one of them another church monitor.

Although versions of what happened vary, Dieck insists it was because he had made people "unhappy" talking about the problems. Both Dieck and that monitor, Mike Laskey, are no longer working for the Interfaith Satellite Shelter Program. Although a police report was filed and Laskey has been seen at The Lot since the incident, police have reportedly not returned to look for him.

Gillette won't comment on Dieck and Laskey, but she agrees that the handling of donations is occasionally a problem.

"There were a number of accusations when Christmas donations were pouring in," she recalls. But it is more a case of "lapses in judgment" that create problems between the time the donations are dropped off and the time when they are put in the shed for all to go through.

While violence within their own ranks poses a problem, there is evidence that it is not just coming from other homeless people.

"Larry" got 13 stitches after being kicked in the head while he was drinking behind a house on Encinal Street. "Mike" shows a bruise that he says happened when he was jumped while sleeping behind Slakey's on River Street. There are others: Sarge, Levi, Kathy, Marlboro, street names of folks who claim they've been on the wrong end of vigilantes.

The stories behind some of those bruises may have gotten a rewrite in the light of day. But Gillette thinks there may be substance to the claims, given the controversy surrounding the city's camping ban.

"Troll-busting happens every time the community gets in an uproar," observes Gillette.

Karen Gillette
George Sakkestad

Guiding Light: Homeless Services Center director Karen Gillette will leave April 30 after 10 years with the program.

FOURTEEN WOMEN are crowded into the cramped Econoline van, the smell of wet, musty clothes filling the vehicle. No one talks; there's just the silent staring out the window at the rain that will not stop. We unload from the van, which then shuttles back to get the mats and blankets from Coral Street. In the meantime, we wait for the church people to serve up the food.

While they're praying for us, we're praying that they don't hang around to visit. They're nice folks, but sleep, not socializing, is on our minds. Only four hours left to lights out, then three, then two. Each church has a nickname. Tonight we're at the "bagel" church, because the church folks leave a big supply of bagels and cookies for breakfast.

A mother and her two teen daughters grab a smoke outside, filling the time with small talk. Bev, a quiet lady in her 50s who probably tips the scales soaking wet at 100 pounds, fights a deep hacking cough as she reads her mystery novel. By this time next week she will be in Dominican Hospital with pneumonia.

There's still an hour left to lights out, but everyone's grabbed his or her mat and blanket, and most are already dozing. The old-timers bring an extra sleeping bag or egg crate foam pad. Otherwise, the half-inch-thick mats are useless against the linoleum floor that leaves hips bruised and makes a decent night's rest impossible.

Finally, the lights go out, but there's no quiet. There's the snoring, the crying baby, the demons that scream for booze or crack or just scream. It's another seven hours before dawn.

Compassion Fatigue

'HOMELESSNESS ISN'T pretty," Gillette says flatly. She should know, having seen thousands come through the program she helped to create. Karen Gillette's own story has been told many times: the county computer analyst who one day volunteered to serve free meals to the homeless. Gradually those meals were supplemented by a place for a hot shower, vocational guidance and help with drug problems. Such was the birth of the Homeless Community Resource Center. By the time it merged last year with the Citizens Committee for the Homeless--overseers of the Shelter Program--to become the Homeless Services Center, it was receiving more than a million dollars in funding, a big leap since its original budget of $25,000 almost 10 years ago.

Gillette has inherited the headaches of ISSP and does not deny it has problems.

"The ISSP has come under huge criticism ever since it's been in place, including from me," Gillette admits. "There's never been a time when it didn't have problems."

Gillette is blessed with thick, lustrous hair that halos her usually smiling face. She looks tired today and admits that morale is at an all-time low around the shelter. Possibly it is because she will be leaving the center on April 30, calling it quits after 10 years in the business. Some look for shadowy reasons behind her departure, but the answer she gives rings true with the fatigue lines etched in the corners of her eyes.

"I looked inside myself one day and saw the Sahara desert," Gillette says. The compassion that brought her this far was beginning to sputter, and she knew it was time to move on.

She nods as we discuss the problems at ISSP, her halo of hair bobbing at each allegation. She knows that drugs and alcohol are a problem with the monitors, but she wasn't aware that they drank at the churches.

"I think it would be exceedingly hard to find someone to do that job that was also clean and sober," Gillette says. The board of the Citizens Committee for the Homeless once looked at the idea of random drug testing, she recalls, but decided that they didn't have a good enough case for public safety.

"It might be something the next director would like to institute," she says. Professional supervision would be the best idea, but there's the question of time and money. Neither looks like it will be coming down the pike soon.

"I think we've always had an ambivalent view towards emergency shelter," Gillette says. "Some feel it's a magnet that draws people; others feel it should be much better than it is now." The result, in Gillette's opinion, is that the community has done it halfway.

She calls the ISSP the "redheaded stepchild" of social services, treated as an afterthought. While transitional programs like the Page Smith Community House or the Resource Center will get the lion's share of funding, emergency shelter is not seen as an end solution to homelessness.

"It's not attractive to donate to," states Gillette. But she makes an important point: try looking for a job without a good night's sleep.

George Sakkestad

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Churches provide overnight shelter, food and sometimes TV for homeless men, women and families.

IT'S NOT QUITE 4am. Suddenly, overhead fluorescent lights split the darkness with a harsh glare. The group's monitor is having a manic episode and gets a little impatient for morning, but she's calmed down and everyone tries to go back to sleep for another hour. Then it's up again, shaking out the blankets and shoving them into plastic bags. The mats are lined up, and a few gals step outside in the chilly dawn for a smoke. Frost mingles with cigarette smoke to lace the blood-red sky breaking over the horizon. A stained-glass Jesus looks out from the church windows, echoing the morning's silence.

There's hot coffee and bagels, then nothing but time. The van will not get here until 8:30 this morning. It's more reading, more sitting, more ... waiting. One hour, then another drags by. Still no van. It's the time of day when most people are headed out to work, but here exhaustion already burns the eyes and clouds the brain.

Juggling Act

'THIS SHUTTLING IS HARD on people," admits ISSP director Mike Bustos. Short and wiry, Bustos is a blur of activity, even when he's sitting still. He puts in 60 to 70 hours a week and appears well liked by the folks who drift in and out of Coral Street. Bustos has a reputation with both clients and co-workers for being generous and kindhearted, sometimes spending his own money to help clients with their bills or shelling out an extra buck or two to tide them over until the Social Security check arrives. Like Gillette, he has been working with the homeless almost 10 years, and like Gillette, he will also be leaving soon. Although it's not official, the ISSP coordinator has written his resignation.

"I just haven't typed it up yet," he smiles.

Although he says he's leaving to go back to school, Bustos admits that a decade working the front lines has taken its toll. He began as a driver and night monitor for the shelter program's South County services in 1990 and also began working part time for the Resource Center in 1993 as a case manager. He juggled both jobs until he left the Shelter Program in disgust in 1996, vowing never to work with the program again unless the structure was changed. Asked what those problems were, Bustos says they were the same as they are now.

"Not enough supervision," Bustos sighs.

Not only did Bustos come back to the Interfaith Satellite Shelter Program after the July merger, he became its director. His restructured position also makes him the boss of about 30 employees, most of whom are homeless or formerly homeless clients of the program. Bustos sees the inherent problems of entrusting them with monitor duties.

"They end up being counselor, therapist and bouncer--for $5.75 an hour," Bustos says. "The idea of a homeless person monitoring a homeless person ... ," his voice trails off.

Asked if it might be a good idea to have Jilka spend a night or two a month with the church groups, Bustos says he hadn't considered it.

Bustos, Jilka and Gillette are up against a tough reality common to the social services sector: limited resources. Someone has to coordinate the vans and the drivers, the churches and the armories and the clients. Then there's coordinating the vans to drop off the mats and blankets at the churches, then the armories. If the armory can't be used that night, someone has to scramble to find another place that will hold 120 people and make that place secure. Statistics must be gathered to justify next year's budget, payroll must be handled and then there's the hiring and firing--an almost weekly chore with this troubled population. Some monitors have worked for years with no problems. But Gillette figures that on average, monitors will turn over three times in four months. Yes, they often get hired back, even if they were fired for drinking, she admits. But by the end of the season, she explains, the personnel field gets a little sparse.

And then there's the end of the season. The armory closes up on April 1 and the church groups drop from four to two on May 1. That leaves 28 spaces of emergency shelter in a county of 250,000.

"It gets brutal," Gillette says. "You've got to triage between the guy with the heart condition and the 15-year-old that's never been on the streets, and somebody in their 70s. People are screaming and crying for shelter that night."

Booze, heroin, suicide, freezing nights and foul play bring news of another client's or former client's death to Gillette almost monthly. She says she's learned to steel herself against the misery, but she hasn't completely succeeded.

Tears well up periodically as we talk. "Someone should cry for them," says Gillette, wiping her eyes in frustration.

There's a simple answer to the problems of supervision, the shuttling, the shrinking space every summer: a year-round, central shelter location. But simple isn't the same as easy, or even possible.

"There's some work being done on permanent shelter," says Sue Gilchrist, senior analyst with the county's Human Resources Agency. Gilchrist specializes in homeless issues within the county and also staffs the Winter Shelter Advisory Committee.

Most of that work is prodded by the state's threat to take away the use of the armories as emergency homeless shelters. Although service providers are a little less panicked with Gov. Wilson gone, they are still searching for alternatives. There may also be a boost, in the form of Senate Bill 633, introduced by Sen. Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto), which would provide $5 million in matching funds to local jurisdictions to fund alternatives to the armory.

For all the bitching and moaning about funds, the truth is that money has been found when it had to be. Two years ago, Wilson tacked on a nightly rent and maintenance charge to the armories that amounted to more than $100,000 a year. There was little doubt among homeless advocates that it was punitive, but Santa Cruz scrambled and came up with the money. That's a lot of cash for rent, cash that could somehow find better use as a down payment or mortgage on a permanent shelter. And Gillette knows just the place, pointing about 200 yards away from 115 Coral St. to a two-story building for sale.

But that building may remain just out of reach, a solution denied because of a community's ambivalent notions about charity.

"The homeless problem didn't start in Santa Cruz," notes Gillette, "and we're not going to solve it."

THE VAN MANEUVERS through the traffic, past the other commuters. We bump along, leaving the residential neighborhood with its cozy bungalows and head on back down to the industrial park, back to The Lot. One by one the passengers stumble off and wander over to the picnic table for a seat. Now the longest wait of all begins--for the day to finish, and to begin again.

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From the April 14-21, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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