April 09, 2014Spring is a wonderful time of year. The flowers are in bloom. There are Easter eggs and the Easter Message. The air is clean, clear and refreshing because of April showers.
There are a few who do not completely share my joy of the spring season, and I don't mean snow skiers. Doug and Jan Ferris, the administrators and managers of the Haven House Homeless Shelter in Escondido, look at April as their saddest time of year. To be honest, they have a good reason.
The shelter they manage is a winter shelter. Doug and Jan serve hundreds who have fallen on hard times. And this shelter is only from Dec. 1 through April 1. They befriend many they serve and constantly worry about their future. When the shelter shuts down the occupants disperse to places mostly unknown. In simple terms, there is no more shelter, very little food. The change is sudden and deflating but perhaps fixable.
"It's a sad time for us,'' says Jan. "It starts about mid-March when D-Day approaches. We are very busy here . . . never a dull moment . . . then bang it's over. Everyone is gone. Doug and I are out of a job as well. We work a little bit before the December opening and we leave a week or two after April 1 when we confirm the numbers and close the books.''
The shelter story is a complex one. It is located adjacent to Interfaith Council on Washington Avenue and Quince Street, which essentially is central Escondido. Haven House, the official name for the shelter, is part of Interfaith. Through the four-month season Doug and Jan and two others, Stacy and Carl, are assigned to run the facility.
Forty live in the shelter, checking in each day at 5:30 p.m. and leaving at 6:30 a.m. the next morning. Most are men. There were 78 different people using the shelter this season. The season is 121 consecutive days. Each night the occupants get a full dinner with an entrée, sides, dessert and beverages. Average cost: $200 to $250. And there often is enough for seconds.
All the dinners are provided by friends of the shelter, area churches and other faith-based groups. ''Without these generous people, we would not exist,'' says Jan. For the record, about 27 of the food nights are filled by churches or people from Valley Center and Pauma Valley.
Escondido is one of six shelters in the North County. Vista, Oceanside and Carlsbad have permanent shelters. There are also two rotating shelters. Jan says Escondido housed 4,550 people this season, which is slightly less than 40 occupants per night multiplied by 121 nights. ''Only'' 278 were turned away because there was no room in this shelter.
By any measure, Haven House is a huge success. Breakfast is served seven days a week and sack lunches are given to those after breakfast. In an adjacent building 40 to 50 Armed Service veterans live and eat, under the auspices of Interfaith. Haven House and Interfaith are connected and work together. We are singling out Haven House in this column. Interfaith would require a full page to highlight its achievements.
Frankly, I'm not sure I am doing this story justice. So much good goes on at the corner of Washington and Quince. However, there are other points that must be made, starting with the obvious need for a year-round shelter.
Through a California State bill some years ago cities were mandated to re-zone areas to find shelter locations. Cities complain that they do not want their homeless to be visible. But there are buildings and areas no longer in use that are suitable for shelters. Many are in areas considered to be "off the beaten track.
Suffice to say that the powers-to-be are working to create areas to help and feed the homeless. There is something Jan calls the Alliance for Regional Solutions. It is easy to say full-time shelters are needed, but funding them, providing staff, seeking volunteers to help, groups to buy, prepare and serve the food 365 nights a year is an undertaking of immense proportion.
Jan brought up something interesting. There are sober living homes and places to deal with substance abuse, plus a constituency to support people with mental health. But, says Jan, "Half or more of those leaving Haven House have none of these problems. They want to work, are physically able to work, and there are no job. ''There is little or nothing out there for them,'' she goes on. "It's depressing. Still, we have some success stories. Some find jobs and keep them. There are case workers at Interfaith trying to help them all along the way.''
There is no TV at the shelter, not much to do except sleep, or read. However, the Ferris family started a Bingo Night in January after someone dropped off the materials to start the game. It was run every Sunday and the occupants looked forward to it. Doug calls the bingo. It is as close to entertainment as one gets at the shelter. More innovative ideas are needed.
The rules are strict. To win a place in the shelter you will be tested for drugs. You also will be asked to take breathalyzer test each evening. Residents are urged not to panhandle or loiter in public places during the 13 hours they are not at the shelter. Public complaints about panhandling and loitering will make it difficult to continue to provide the shelters, the handbook says.
If you miss a meeting with your case manager, you don't get a voucher to return to the shelter the next week. The safety and comfort of all residents is paramount.
There is really no end to this story. Jan and Doug put out a Wish List with dozens of items needed during shelter season, and especially during the eight months when people are on the street. Last year they started a Bag-a-Bye Program, soliciting back packs that could be filled with necessity items, such as socks and toiletries. They met the quota.
This year a company stepped up and bought first-line heavy-duty camping back packs, solving an urgent need without any promotion.
Many companies contribute money and product to help the shelter and Interfaith Council. I'd love to print the names. But clearly they'd like to remain anonymous.