Just like many of their clients, the Five Cities Homeless Coalition (5CHC) is looking for some space to call home. And just like their clients, they promise to be good neighbors; it’s just that circumstances have changed beyond their control.
The nonprofit operates a warming shelter for the South County homeless during the winter and a variety of programs year-round with a focus on permanent housing as well as crisis management. But, as of May 1, the offices they’ve been occupying virtually free of charge for nearly four years will no longer be available. In early April they thought there was a place lined up to move into Grover Beach, but that deal may have fallen through as the complexes other commercial tenants voiced concerns over what the 5CHC planned to do with the space.
“Yes, we’re still looking for offices,” said Executive Director Janna Nichols, “We’re even hoping to move into the same space we’d negotiated…we’re very sensitive to the needs of neighbors. Being good citizens and good tenants is important to us, but the need is urgent.”
She added that she didn’t feel the objections of a would be neighbor was as much an issue of the general stigma faced by the homeless, but out of concerns the entire community must face.
“If I’m a business owner I’m equally concerned that people aren’t sleeping in my doorway or causing problems for my customers,” she said, “These are the issues faced by our organization, and our community [which] has an issue finding space for people in areas where people aren’t meant to be sleeping. The idea is to get clients into rooms or an apartment of their own.”
President of the 5CHC Board, Michael Byrd, added that the organization’s current landlords, “have been incredibly awesome to us,” but there’s a contract for the space coming up and 5CHC is not looking to overstay their welcome.
“If worst comes to worst,” he said, “I guess I’ll be clearing out my garage.”
Closing down for lack of space is “not an option” he added, although Nichols said, several of the organization’s partner agencies have caseworkers and others working out of their cars. The point of having an office though is to have both space for administrative functions as well as one-on-one meetings with clients, and room for private meetings for representatives from other organizations. After all, how does one feel attempting to piece together a financial future and find a place to live out of a corner in Starbucks?
Rental space and other overhead are usually covered by the donations the nonprofit is able to garner, with grants associated with individual programs.
“We’ve been blessed to have over 80 percent of our funds go directly into programs,” he said.
Of course beggars can’t be choosers, and Byrd said they’d likely have to find out exactly what any potential site will cost, then go to the public for donations.
He too is holding out hope that their plans to move into the Grover Beach site can be renewed.
“People are worried. Usually when people are worried it’s a misunderstanding,” he said, clarifying in this case a misunderstanding about the 5CHC clients. “We’re trying to work that out. In general there are a lot of misunderstandings about who the homeless are.”
He related a recent meeting in which he was tasked with answering questions from skeptical members of the public. “I’d say that we ‘converted’ about 50 people [to supporters] after awhile. You know almost everyone we work with is local. They’re going through a crisis and they need help.”
That’s all complicated by the fact that 5CHC will soon need a new location for their winter warming shelter as well. Sooner than it would seem actually because permits and like take some time to complete.
They’re not looking to co-locate the facilities but Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach are the most central areas for the Five Cities.
“We’ve never had a kitchen before,” said Byrd. “It would be nice to have a place for hot meals to be kept at temperature. They only last two hours without utilities.”
While this reporter, and indeed Byrd himself might “risk it” with hot food gone cold, “We’re dealing with people in pretty bad shape already. They’ve been in the elements. We can’t put them at risk too.”
While a kitchen would be a luxury, the real need is for a 1,000 sq. ft. space, ideally which doesn’t require constant set up and break down between nights, although that would be acceptable.
“We outgrew the County’s conference room last year,” said Byrd. “What we need is a big room with restrooms. The County building was a challenge with all the furniture too.”
Despite challenges, said Nichols, “the warming center was heavily utilized this year. We had 1,800 people through the winter. It ended March 31, but we kept people alive during the winter months.”
They’re not alone in looking for a new site, she added, they’re partnering through various agencies also looking for permanent a site.
In the mean time, 5CHC is still pursuing their other programs, for instance working with the San Luis Obispo Food Bank and a Community Foundation grant to provide “no cook bags” to their clients on the streets with no kitchen facilities. The provisions are high in protein, with canned goods that are “pop top” and don’t require additional preparation.
A fundraiser for the 5CHC will be held May 2 at Fin’s Seafood Restaurant in Grover Beach to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. The “Dinner for a Cause Fiesta” begins at 5 p.m. and take-out beginning at 5:30 p.m. for a minimum donation of $25. Call 574-1638.
By Camas Frank