La Verne Magazine
Spring 1999

"Defining Family"


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 families.

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 help."

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 Ontario.

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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