Just over a decade ago, roughly 7,000 people called Patterson home. Certainly, some of them were homeless. But with great growth comes increased social issues.
Now the city has roughly 22,000 residents and a growing homeless population, with 73 people identified in the 2010 census sans a roof overhead and no doubt others who avoided being counted.
Yet until 2013, the city had no homeless emergency housing as required by SB 2, signed into law in 2007 and applicable to any city of more than 10,000 residents. So when Pam Secrest and Kurt Gross decided to transform an old, vandalized assisted-living center into such a place, the city helped them secure a $254,000 no-interest loan to buy the property, remodel it and bring it into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
After creating the nonprofit Helping Others Sleep Tonight (HOST) in 2009, they opened the HOST House two winters ago. But they’ve refused to treat it as an overnight hostel.
“We are a hand up, not a handout,” Gross said. “We take in people who are making changes in their lives.”
It is the only such place on the entire West Side, serving Crows Landing, Newman, Hilmar and Gustine, as well as Patterson. It’s available each night for up to 16 people. Most have derailed their lives with drugs and alcohol, or have been in prison, and need structure to turn themselves around. HOST gives them that structure from the time they check in between 5 and 6 p.m. each day until they leave for the day the following morning. During that time, they get a hot meal, a shower, access to washers and dryers, and a warm bed. More importantly, they spend time together, supporting one another.
“They have to agree to the house rules,” Secrest said. “We check their IDs. They can’t be on drugs and there can’t be drugs or alcohol in the house. Our goal is to get them into stable housing. We’re not a flophouse, but we’re constantly fighting that perception.”
HOST’s successes might change a few minds. From Oct. 1, 2013, through March 31, the nonprofit housed 47 people and got 11 of them into homes or apartments. This winter, from Nov. 1 through Feb. 1, HOST will have sheltered 30 people and found permanent housing for 12 of them.
But expenses are high: $5,000 a month to pay the two full-time employees, the utilities bills and the debt service on the building. Obviously, expenses are lower in the months when they aren’t housing folks. But it still requires maintenance and expansion. The organization relies on tax-deductible donations, fundraising dinners and volunteers who cook and bring in the nightly meals because the place doesn’t have a commercial kitchen. Though HOST is not aligned with any particular faith, six Patterson churches offer everything from food and clothing to Bible studies.
That leaves Secrest and Gross with two missions: to help people begin to rebuild their lives and to find funding to keep the place open to do so. Tuesday night, they hosted 14 people, including two couples expecting babies. The couples won’t be able to stay once the babies are born, as HOST House cannot accept children.
Secrest and Gross are making an impact. If not for HOST, Tracy Rosswalter and husband John Flores would have spent the night parked somewhere in their 1989 Jeep Cherokee. They came from the Bay Area, where they’d once spent nights in their Oldsmobile because they couldn’t find a place to live.
“It’s just too expensive over there,” said Flores, who works in a pizza parlor in Patterson.
“We found out about this place about a year ago,” Flores said. The couple donated some turkeys and canned goods to HOST’s food pantry. Now they are living there, trying to find permanent housing.
Another resident, who gave me only her first name, Kym, is on her second stay. Addicted to drugs, she went through a program and stayed clean for 15 years.
“Then I relapsed,” she said. She became involved in the Teen Challenge program and is back at HOST trying to find an apartment or home.
“I love the help and support I get here,” she said.
Resident Johnny Garcia works at a warehouse in Livermore but couldn’t afford to live in that community. He ended up homeless in Patterson, where it’s cheaper to be homeless.
“A month ago, I was sleeping next to a heroin addict,” he said. “A door opened for me here on Christmas. I get to sleep, take a shower and relax. And I get the support to carry on.”
Like many others, he had to overcome his personal demons. “I was just lost,” he said. “It wasn’t until sobriety found me and God found me and took me on this journey and sent me to HOST.”
A resident named Michael, 58, lived in Merced, where he worked in construction, in food production and as a supervisor at a door manufacturer. His children grown, things changed.
“I just took the wrong turn into the party and drug life,” he said. “I turned 50 in prison.”
Staying at HOST, he said, brought God into his life. “I found my mental capacity to go out and get hungry for life again,” he said.
Andrew arrived Nov. 24, escaping the substance abuse that still grips his wife. “Since Day One, I haven’t seen anybody here under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” he said. “I’m in a program, being tested. I love the love and support I get here. If this place wasn’t available, though, I’d be back in addiction.”
His roommate, Torrell, managed apartments in the Bay Area until a fire destroyed them. Then, he said, thieves relieved him of his material possessions, including his vehicles. “They went Christmas shopping,” he quipped. He arrived at HOST the same day as Andrew.
“I see people come in here with no self-esteem, no hope,” Torrell said. “When they leave here, they have a huge glow. They know, ‘I’m going to be OK.’ They build their character and try harder.”
Monique Castillo and Gabriel Minjares are HOST’s next success story. She’ll give birth to a daughter any day, after which they will move into regular housing in Newman.
“They helped us find a home,” she said. But first things first: “My contractions are every 20 minutes. The hospital told me to come in when they are every five minutes.”
When they leave, it will open a room for two others, and there still will be a need. There always is.
Patterson is growing and so is its homeless population. It needs a year-round operation to keep pace or gain ground, Secrest said.
“If we could stay open year-round, we could put a dent in homelessness here,” she said.