Latest News

It's out of the shelter and back on the Hard Streets

TURLOCK -- With blond frazzled hair and a worn red flannel shirt, a homeless woman frantically bunched 60-gallon trash bags from the cold weather homeless shelter's supply closet into a dirty, plastic Wal-Mart bag.

Her eyes shot across at Dawn Saxbury, who works at the city's shelter. The woman expected a reprimand.

"It's going to rain on my stuff out there," the homeless woman said.

"It's OK, hon,'" Saxbury said, telling her to take the bags. "It's OK."

The woman was one of 65 people to step outside the city's only shelter and into the unknown Tuesday morning.

For a series of stories published in January, The Bee chronicled the lives of several homeless people when they moved into the shelter in November. When the shelter closed Tuesday, some had their own homes, but others returned to the streets.

Terry and Linda Cool have moved into a Modesto home, part of a housing program for low-income people with disabilities. Steve Harris, who lived in a shanty off First Street, has been taken in by family in Arizona. Mick Matthews and his girlfriend, Donna Lofton, who used the pseudonym Marlene in January, and their friend Blue Bike Mike Roark are back on the street.

More than 260 people used the shelter since November, said Maris Sturtevant, who sits on the shelter's board of directors. Of those, 32 found housing, 29 found employment, four bought an automobile, three entered a drug and alcohol program, and one was placed in the care of county mental health services.

The city opened the cold weather shelter in January 2003 to protect the homeless from the worst months of the year. It opened early this season, on Nov. 20, and was set to close on April 1 before the City Council extended it 30 days.

In the B Street shelter — an old warehouse built off a railroad spur with 65 wooden beds lined up 18 inches apart — Saxbury, who's worked there six months, shouted the wake-up call at 6:45. Some of the homeless already were outside smoking; many got out of bed and staggered to the large urn of coffee, cigarettes dangling from lips.

"The lights are on, but nobody's home," Mick Matthews said, reaching for that first, necessary cup of coffee.

Struck down by a stroke in April 2005 and without insurance, Mick spent his $200,000 savings on medical bill after medical bill. Lying half-paralyzed in a hospital bed, the truck driver of 30 years lost his big rig when he missed a monthly $3,500 payment. His apartment went next.

In January, after a year on the street, Mick's request for Social Security disability insurance was denied. A few weeks later, he had his second embolic stroke and spent a week in Emanuel Medical Center. He was given a prescription for medicine he couldn't afford.

"His motor skills still aren't right, and see how he stutters more," Donna said.

"Hey, it's still me, babe," Mick said in his rich Australian drawl. "I'm still breathing. You know?"

City officials planned to knock down the B Street shelter and build a year-round facility, but downtown religious and business leaders mobilized against the shelter early last year. Plans for a long-term homeless solution have been stalled while the Center for Public Policy at California State University, Stanislaus, gauges community opinion on homelessness in a locally funded $70,000 report expected in August.

Out of the van and home again

Terry and Linda Cool moved into the shelter with Mick on opening day in November, but weren't there to see it close Tuesday. After two years living in shelters and their Ford Windstar van, parking in the United Samaritans and Salvation Army parking lots, the Cools were placed in a Modesto home in early April.

Pillows and blankets and black garbage bags filled with clothes crowded their van's tinted windows back then, but today the clothes are in a dresser, the pillows on the bed and the blankets on the couch.

Last week, Terry sat in a chair on his front porch, a gallon jar of tea brewed in the sun. "This is it," he said, his arms spread wide. "This is our home."

Two months into living at the cold-weather shelter, Linda's fragile health worsened. The remnants of congestive heart failure, her asthma and complications from a lung disease similar to emphysema led to a fluid buildup in her body. Her legs swelled, she couldn't stay awake and any movement meant pain. From January to March, she spent more than a dozen days in Doctors Medical Center in Modesto. She was put on oxygen.

Terry and much of the shelter staff worried for her life when Sturtevant brought their case to the Stanislaus Community Assistance Project, or SCAP.

"Even the doctors told us," Terry said, "she will not survive another summer in the van."

They entered a new program for the disabled where 30 percent of their income — Terry's $800 Social Security disability check — would go to pay rent.

"They were at a time when they really, really, needed something," Sturtevant said Tuesday.

Ironically, when Linda was being ferried between the shelter and the hospital, she was denied her disability check. They've since employed a Denair attorney to fight the ruling, and he will be paid only if he wins.

"We learned a lot on the homeless side," Linda said sitting in an easy chair, a glass of sun tea in her hand and computer on her lap, "but we had a goal. And we knew God had a plan for us."

Circled wagons

Stephen Harris, whom we first met in a hovel built built of scrap metal and plastic on the side of a brick building near First Street, moved into his brother's three bedroom, two bath home with a big back yard and in-ground pool in Mesa, Ariz. One of 11 children in a big Turlock family, Steve's sister found him after she read The Bee in January.

The family circled the wagons.

After a semi-truck accident in 2000 crippled him — fractured vertebrae, a crushed knee — Harris' wife left him. Unable to hold a job, and with back pain keeping him in bed some days, he slowly drifted from home to friends to the street.

On the good days, he'd ride around Turlock on his bicycle, usually pulling a cart with a pinwheel antenna flitting in the wind. These days, when his health is good, he helps his brother and sister-in-law at craft shows, where they sell figurines and clocks and small, homemade furniture, or with the three kids.

"I miss the streets from time to time," Harris said in a phone interview, with children playing and crying in the background. "I think about them, the problems we go through and how we took care of our problems. We always had to be creative. I don't have to use my creativity here."

But nothing, Harris said, comes close to being with his family again, getting back involved with their church, and helping at the craft shows and with the kids.

"I don't have to worry about cops throwing me around," he said. "I don't have to hunt for things to eat."

Starting today, many of the homeless don't have that luxury.

Under a new chief, Turlock police have made strides in the past year to work with the homeless. The shelter has helped, said Sgt. Sue Steele, because it gives officers a viable option to offer the city's homeless when they're found sleeping on the street or in a park.

Now, with no place to go in Turlock, the Police Department's answer is Modesto. "We'll do what we've done in the past, refer them to Modesto," Steele said. "There's a shelter up there."

The 250-bed Modesto Gospel Mission is the only year-round homeless shelter in the county. Modesto's 100-bed, cold weather shelter at The Salvation Army also closed Tuesday.

Most of the popular homeless haunts in Turlock that The Bee found in November have changed significantly in the past six months. The Weeds, a patch of overgrown scrub brush in an abandoned lot off High Street, has been cut low. The Sunflower Patch, where Mick first moved when he became homeless, near the Golden State Boulevard overpass, also has been cut. The area under the overpass has been fenced.

"There's no place to hide," Blue Bike Mike Roark said Tuesday morning. "We'll basically be right in the streets, in the alleys and on the sidewalks."

The California State University, Stanislaus, resource center is looking to help the homeless. The Community Action and Resources for Empowerment and Sustainability (CARES) program, which opened last year, holds weekly homeless council meeting where the community decides what needs to be addressed.

Last week, the group discussed a central problem to homelessness: food.

During the week, the United Samaritans Foundation and, on Sundays, Food Not Bombs provide meals for the homeless. On Saturdays, they're left to their own devices.

Most homeless can make $20 to $50 a week collecting cans. Some, Blue Bike Mike among them, have under-the-table jobs. Food stamps are worth $155 a month, and for the lucky few, there's Social Security. But for many, Saturday is the day Dumpster diving produces the most table fare.

Churches successfully provided dinners to the shelter each night it was open. The center is working to coordinate a brown bag drop-off where religious and civic groups could donate 40 to 50 meals every Saturday at noon.

"Again this summer, they'll be chasing people around all summer, wasting city resources, with no place to go," Mick told the group. He and several other homeless men want to see a tent city like that in Fresno.

Fresno Mayor Alan Autry, with the help of the county, set aside space near the city's two shelters for a public restroom, a county-staffed public health trailer and a space for homeless people to raise tents. Autry called it a "short-term solution that could lead to a long-term solution."

But it isn't any kind of solution for Turlock, at least not yet, said Community Development Director Charlie Woods. Turlock isn't ready to make any moves on homelessness until the university completes its public input study, he said.

In a proposal Mick sent to the city in April, he asked for a site near the Golden State Boulevard overpass and a city-supported Dumpster and portable toilets.

The idea will probably never reach the City Council, Woods said. It came too late and has too many holes.

"We're not going to go around hunting down where we can put running water," Woods said. "For now, things will be the status quo, a holding pattern, if you know what I mean, until the pol-icy study comes out."

They call Blue Bike Mike "Blue Bike Mike" because his eyes match his bicycle. He moved into the cold-weather shelter in December.

He was then promoted from handing out satellite TV fliers to installing the devices. Last week, he hoped to move into a trailer at Almond Street and Golden State Boulevard. Tuesday morning, he wasn't so sure.

"I'll be on the sidewalks," he said.

Last week, though, with a few drinks after work and a big meal at the shelter, he wasn't as pessimistic as he was at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday: "I got it more together than most of these people. I work every day. I work every day."

Blue Bike Mike said he's working with the Veterans Affairs clinic in Modesto and hopes the change in address, job promotion and some medical attention can alter his drinking pattern.

"I need a swift kick in my a--. Wake up, smell the coffee and 'Git-R-Done!'" he said, pulling on the camouflage brim of his hat, which reads, 'Git-R-Done,' he yelled with a laugh: "Git-R-Done!"

Old routines and new behaviors

Sammy, who had his long hair and beard in braids in November, had been sleeping in a Dumpster when the shelter opened. He said he'd probably be back there Tuesday night.

So has anything changed in these six months?

"The date," he said.

Harold, whom Mick first met at the homeless resource center last summer, was a rail of a man, with sunken cheeks, unsteady gait and sallow, almost translucent skin. Along with the ravishes of substance abuse, Harold discovered he had diabetes running unchecked. When we met him in November at the shelter, he had put on 35 pounds. His life has continued to improve.

"I've been clean and sober eight months," he said Monday. "It was time to change my lifestyle, to stop drinking, stop all that."

On the streets, Harold was separated from his wife, Pam, who was in a sober-living house. Harold joined her — enrolling in a men's sober house, frequently attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and finding a job. He works sanitation at Valley Fresh, 48 hours a week, the graveyard shift, at minimum wage.

"I owe it all to my higher power," he said.

Charles, who used to be called Chuck, and his black pooch, Emmitt Smith, are still in a tent behind a downtown business. He didn't stay at the shelter because it didn't take dogs.

Mad Dog Charles, with his wild eyes and shouts at the moon, still stalks the Turlock streets. On rare nights he stayed at the shelter, but not recently.

When we first met Mick in November, his only two possessions that hadn't been lost or stolen on the street were a long black raincoat and a pair of black ostrich-skin cowboy boots with silver-tipped toes. Tuesday morning, the jacket was packed into a Big Lots shopping cart, the boots were on his soon-to-beempty shelter bed.

"No, I'm not taking them," he said. "What's the use? Huh? In three weeks all the stuff in here," he pointed at the shopping cart, "will be gone anyway. What's the use?"

Turning 55 this year, Mick is eligible for his Teamsters pension, which he thinks will get him into an apartment in the fall. More than anything, he wants a small job he can handle, like something behind a counter, he said.

"I don't want to do this again, but we have no choice," he said folding a sleeping bag into his cart.

A box filled with books was next to the boots: "The Unfinished Journey," "Down & Out in Africa," "Power & Politics in America," "New Believer's Bible." Mick pushed his shopping cart out the shelter door.

Donna has made $500 since December selling ornate paper flowers made out of things found in the street. She packed the supplies into a small bag. Mick didn't say anything as he left. The couple of four years had been on the outs for a day or two.

Outside the shelter, he pushed his cart toward Broadway, his brow wrinkled, eyes wet. He looked angry:

"I'm scared, to tell you the truth."