La Verne Magazine
Thrity Days to Make It
by Erin Grycel
photography by Ian Gratz
Stepping back into society, Juan Saenz confidently offers his steady
hand to a toddler as he takes his first steps at the shelter. With a network
of support, residents relearn how to parent and manage daily stress during
their 30-day stay.
As children in suburbia lay their heads down to sleep in a warm bed
and have Dr. Seuss stories read to them, four not so fortunate children
desperately look out of the windows of a Pinto, wondering where they will
sleep for the night. With all their belongings packed in the car -- clothes,
games and family momentos -- Patricia Simental, mother of the family, drives
the car in search of a parking lot to sleep or, in best case, to find an
inexpensive motel to stay at for the night.
This night, it is the Union Station in Pasadena. Vouchers are dispersed
to Patricia, and she checks into a motel. At five a.m., before dawn, the
Simental family is forced to leave the motel, along with other homeless
As a new day begins, the practiced daily routine starts. Patricia tries
to obtain some money to feed her children and searches for a place to sleep
for the night. At her wit's end, she asks workers at the Union Station for
referrals to various homeless shelters in the county. She dials the number
and waits for an individual to pick up the phone.
Peering outside of his motel window, Juan Saenz scans the parking lot
to see who is causing the raucous noise. As his six children try to obtain
a decent night of sleep, hollers and howls echo throughout the room from
alcohol and narcotic influenced men outside of the building.
After two days of living in the motel, he and his family will have to
pack up their belongings. Tomorrow, he will sit outside of the Pomona Neighborhood
Shelter and gain more motel vouchers. With tired eyes and worry lines across
his face, he decides to make a change and calls various shelters around
the Pomona area.
His incessant cough, the kind that still rings in one's ears long after
it is quiet, can be heard throughout the room, filled with cots and individuals
sleeping for the night. As a result of his sudden sickness, Danny Collins,
60 plus, has been left without a job, without a house dwelling and, most
importantly, without a savings account. Exasperated and frustrated from
moving to numerous one-night shelters, he and his wife agree to search for
an alternative to their stagnated situation.
Completely separate backgrounds but bound together by one commonality
-- homelessness -- all three families seek refuge at Our House Homeless
Shelter, managed through the Pomona Inland Valley Council of Churches.
Unique not only by its name but by the mission statement that the staff
follows in its interaction with the residents, the shelter is a rehabilitation
center devoted to homeless individuals striving to regain jobs and housing.
Staff members provide personal counseling within a 30-day-time period.
Dolly Spivy directs the programs at Our House Shelter. "The program
we provide is like putting up a mirror in front of the [residents] and hoping
that people really see themselves when they leave. " She adds, "If
they are willing to make changes, we will provide them with the tools so
they can work on [certain issues]."
Throughout the course of the 30-day time period, residents are provided
with a strict schedule to follow, from attending parenting classes and case
management sessions to abiding by curfew hours and chore assignments.
Witness "women-talk": As female residents attend the twice
a week sessions meant to evoke discussions on relationships with people,
oneself and God, the women joke with each other and share their secrets
like adolescent girls in a family. After three days of residing in the shelter,
Mary Jane, a single mother of two 18-month-old twin boys, attends. Her eyes
appear dull, like she has become numb to some of the hardships that she
has experienced in her life. Quietly sitting at the end of the table, she
listens to Miss Ethel, a senior citizen resident, and Patricia laugh about
the awful dinner they had last night.
The plan here is to build community. "We confront the deep issues
of what brought us to the shelter, and, if we are strong enough, we change,"
says Gloria Johnson, psychotherapist.
Confiding in the group, Mary Jane says, "My brother hit me one
too many times, and I called the police. My father was on my side, but my
mother told me to leave the house. I have been paying rent, but my brother
does not do anything...I had no money and no place to go with two babies."
Gloria answers, "Is that all of the problem?" Mary Jane's eyes
begin to swell with tears. She says, "What do you want me to say, that
my mother is unfair. Do not even go there. I know that; I am trying to help
myself now." The silence is deafening. Sitting around the table, every
resident is listening intently. To the observer, the stories bring tears
to one's eyes and a desire to provide a reassuring smile that the situation
will work out positively.
After a half-hour of counseling, Gloria says, "You are moving in
the right direction, but you are an idealist not a realist. If you do not
let this go, you are just wasting yourself." She adds, "You have
to respect yourself and change who you are in order to raise your children."
The message takes root. One week later, Mary Jane says, "Speaking to
Gloria about my problems has been the best part of the program. I felt a
lot of relief after talking to her, and I feel like my options are opening
up. I now can look back and see why I am in this position and move on with
getting a stable job at the unity Church in Hispanic Relations."
Since this is the only shelter housing families in this end of the Los
Angeles County (besides battered women and substance abuse shelters), there
are more than 25 requests a day from homeless individuals.
As toddlers wimper inside, Patricia Simental, resident at Our House
Shelter, finds solitude outside of the shelter with a cigarette. With hair
pulled back and sports attire, one is drawn to the jade stone rings that
adorn her fingers."Today has not been a good day," she says, "I
miss not attending some of the events on the Indian reservation that I usually
take my children to see."
After regrouping for a couple of minutes, she reminisces about her first
day. "When I called the shelter," she says, "first they asked
me over the phone where I was staying and what was the reason for my homelessness.
After I talked to them for a little while, they told me to come to the offices.
I had to fill out a bunch of paperwork, release forms, give my social security
number and tell them what medications I was taking." She adds, "At
that point, they told me that my children and I could immediately move in."
"Not everyone can get into the program," says Danny, quietly
staring at the ground. However, "I felt very fortunate to come here;
there are not a lot of programs for people who are just trying to get back
on their feet." With a sudden raise in his voice, he says, "There
are places for people who have just gotten out of prison, [people] who are
alcoholics, addicted to drugs; but for someone like me, who just ran out
of money, there are few places." He adds, "They drug test us to
make sure we are not doing anything, and that we are serious about the program."
Inside the surplus room, Spivy organizes and counts the extra clothing,
disposable diapers, linens and food needed by the residents. "Our shelter
is different because we do not take the chronically homeless," Spivy
says. "They [the families] have usually been evicted from their place
because they lost their job, their AFDC program was cut, or they have been
living in various motels."
After attending the job search seminar, Juan sits by himself reading
the job placement advertisements in the newspaper. "I feel safe here,"
he says. "My wife is in another shelter with five of my children, and
my main goal is to get a job and reunite the family." He pauses and
adds, "I never thought this would happen; I lost my job, I was evicted
from my apartment, my license was revoked...it kept on going downhill."
In comparison to living on the streets, he says, "Everyone has
chores, and we all need a little help to be independent again." He
nervously twitches his leg. "Most people on the streets are only looking
for a room to stay at for the night. They try to drink, hustle money and
then go from place-to-place to get a free breakfast, lunch and dinner."
He observes Patricia's children working on their homework and adds, "I
didn't want to take [people's} money; I would rather buy my children their
own clothing and food."
Instead of a sterile, medical facility appearance, the shelter interior
resembles a mountain cabin. With high wooden beams supporting the structure,
there is a large living room with a fireplace, sofas and television, eight
separate bedrooms with bunk beds, three bathrooms and a kitchen fully equipped
with cooking facilities. On the bulletin board, there are a list of chore
assignments, taxi vouchers and daily schedules. Curtains decorate the windows,
which invite children to feel at home and set the stage for a family atmosphere.
As boys play bingo at the dinner table, Patricia's 9-year-old son, who
would not reveal his name, says, "I like this place, and I like the
other children. It is just really tight with three beds and five of us sharing
them. I cannot wait to actually live in our own apartment."
With 22 residents living at the shelter, conflicts do arise. Patricia
says, "I was offered the resident assistant position after 20 days.
Although I get to welcome the new residents, report to the managing offices
and get paid a stipend of $55 a week, residents do not want to listen to
me because I am in the same situation as them."
Before dinner, the facilities manager approaches the residents about
the ongoing arguments that are occurring in the shelter. Patricia's son
says, "The yelling that you hear happens [with the women.] We have
to live so close to each other that they get into arguments." As Patricia
cooks in the kitchen, Mary Jane's twins are crying. She hurriedly tries
to wash the bottles. "I am going to get out of your way; just wait
a second," says Mary Jane.
"The most important thing to remember," says Ethel, "is
that we have to develop courtesy, respect, consideration and responsibility
for one another." She adds, "We are all here for the same reason;
we are without a home, and we came here for help."
Some 150 families come through the shelter annually, "Some of the
people do not make it," Spivy says. Ethel comments, "David was
a satanic worshipper, and he left last week. I did not feel sorry for him;
he doesn't know what is right, and someone else could be here who needs
The program is designated for a 30-day time period. But there is flexibility.
"Just in case you do not get everything situated, you can stay for
up to 45 days," says Patricia. "They do not kick you out, and
they make sure that you have some type of job lined up when you leave."
Drastic changes take place within the residents over the course of time.
"I had to learn how to get along with people when I came to the shelter,"
says Patricia. Without food or shelter, homeless individuals must learn
to rely on themselves, trusting no one. "When I was out on the street,
I was bitter toward everyone, and I was so cautious with my money and my
belongings." She adds, "When I came here, I had to hand over my
money [for a savings account] and then I had to sit in front of others,
telling them all the stuff that has happened to me."
Within the first week, it is crucial for the staff to provide a trustworthy
support system for the residents. While Spivy begins to rock a baby to sleep
who has been crying, the mother of the child says, "Dolly, I need more
baby food." She answers, "Do not worry about it; we can bring
more to you." Walking back to the shelter offices, Spivy comments,
"When they first come here, they sometimes do not even care about themselves.
We have the program set up in a professional way, but we also must become
emotionally attached to them [residents] and believe in them."
While living at the shelter, many of the families re-evaluate their
parenting skills. While Mary Jane organizes her clothes in her room, the
two boys play with plastic cars on the ground. As they begin to antagonize
each other, she says, "As a child, I never had anyone who supported
me. Once I get back on my feet, I want to be there for my children and try
to help them become who they would like to be."
Due to the fact that Patricia's children are older, they remember living
on the streets and at times advised her on financial situations. "I
was stressing them out. They were telling me, 'Mom, we cannot afford that
[clothing].' They were way too young to see all that was out there on the
streets." After six weeks of living at the shelter, Patricia and her
children packed up their belongings to move into transitional housing in
Families can pay low income rent for an apartment unit, which is set
aside by the organization, as long as the families partake in the Homestart
Program. Within 12 months, the family still attends classes and meets with
a case worker to handle any difficulties that may arise in their new living
conditions. "I now have a whole new outlook on life," says Patricia.
"I am trying to teach my children to be responsible, and they know
that we cannot take things for granted. We are going to be OK, though; we
have become closer."
As the aroma of chicken and rice fills the air, Patricia, for the last
time, fulfills her chore. She cooks dinner for the large 22 member family.
Set in a buffet style, the children line up to serve their food and hungeringly
eat their dinner. Sitting down at the table, the adults at the shelter discuss
job leads and future goals. Juan excitedly tells Patricia, "I got a
job at the Urban League, and I will begin to make some money again."
Patricia announces, "I am leaving tomorrow, and I am so excited."
She tells Juan, "I am going back to pharmaceutical school."Slowly,
silence sweeps over the residents; all have a unique struggle that they
are trying to overcome in their lives. They have bonded together like a
family because of the commonality of their situation and the support that
they have provided for one another.
In the distance, church bells can be heard chiming. As every hour passes
by, the bells ring, signifying the revolving cycle of personal growth, regeneration
and success that takes place within the residents at the shelter.
"I hope that someone will read this story, and if they are in trouble
will come to the shelter for help," says Mary Jane. "Who knows,
maybe I will be able to help someone like the shelter has helped me... maybe
I will be the next success story."
Sighs of frustration can be heard from Elaine Collins, as she scans the
classified job ads at the dinner table of Our House Shelter. After attending
Job Search, a twice a week seminar, residents are reassured that their financial
stability will be attained.
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