"This is such a haven for people, because it's so clean and nice," said Betty Chinn, a longtime Eureka resident and nationally known advocate who has received awards from President Barack Obama and former California first lady Maria Shriver for her work with homeless people.
"When we built this place, I told Kurt Kramer (who helped with the building renovations), 'I don't want it junky. I don't need anything new, but I don't want it junky.' We want people to come in and feel clean and nice and peaceful," Chinn said. "That's what they need, and then they can stay an hour or two hours, it doesn't matter. They can use the computers and if they need any help, someone can help them out. They can do a resume, all kinds of stuff. That kind of personal connection makes a lot of difference."
People interested in visiting the center to see what it's all about are invited to attend an open house Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. to celebrate its first anniversary.
"I feel like the city and county and the people really support me," Chinn said, "but I don't want to sell myself or talk about myself. I want to show the people what we've done."
The facility opened its doors at 133 Seventh St. in Eureka on Nov. 19, 2013, and for the past year it has provided services to homeless people and low-income residents including street outreach, case management, employment counseling, supervised computer use, children's programs, transitional housing, stabilization services (like a mailing address and voicemail service) and mobile medical care offered in partnership with Open Door Community Health Centers.
"(The center) makes a lot of difference for the homeless people who want to make a change and have a better life," said Chinn, who was homeless herself in China for several years after Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution destroyed her family and left her living in a dump. "Some people aren't ready to change, but some are just down on their luck and nobody dares to support them or help them. So we opened up this center because, basically, I really want to help people return to society and be another productive citizen in the community."
Chinn created the center by partnering with Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, and she said she was "amazed" by how quickly it came together.
"I checked out services in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Novato, and I found out that Catholic Charities' program matched what I'm doing, so that's why we partnered with them. They have very good programming and a huge organization down in the south, so we used them as a model for this center. I am still amazed that it only took a year and one month from the beginning to the end to open it."
Based on the center's quarterly reports, it has served more than 1,200 clients in the past year, with 400 participating in on-site supportive services. Out of 239 program participants from April through the end of June (the most recent quarter for which detailed data was available), 48 applied for housing, 11 moved into housing and 13 found employment. In her street outreach program, Chinn served 24,800 dinners and breakfasts, gave out 3,560 garments and 150 jackets, distributed 200 blankets and sleeping bags, and provided 56 gas vouchers for people who needed funds to leave the area and get back home.
In addition to the services the center offers to homeless adults, program manager Mark Amacher said an important aspect of its work is outreach to homeless children and kids from low-income families.
"We do a lot of prevention and work to break the cycle (of homelessness)," said Amacher. "We find that's usually the most effective way and it has to start with children."
Chinn said that many of the children they serve are in the third generation of homelessness.
"I know them. I know the mom, I know the grandma, I know the great-grandmother," she said. "So I do whatever I can do It's a huge job, but even if you just reach one kid, it's enough. That's how I feel. The kids really learn a lot about how to build their self-esteem. We have a lot of kids with anger issues, because their parents are fighting or yelling or screaming, or nobody is there to support the kid. Then they go to school and hear, 'You're a homeless kid, we don't want to play with you or be your friend.'"
Chinn said the program serves about 20 children on a regular basis, working on learning skills and socialization issues.
"Kids are very important," she said. "They're the only way we can break the cycle. You can see the changes in the kids. Their behavior changes. They used to come and punch people and hit people, but we teach them, 'We don't punch. We talk.' They feel loved, and when they feel loved, they can love other people, and maybe they can take that back to the parents."
In addition to the before- and after-school programs, Amacher said they also offer respite child care for parents who need a couple of hours to accomplish tasks they can't manage while taking care of young children. That could include things like filling out applications for jobs or benefits.
"There are so many barriers on the street — constantly being in crisis and having to be constantly aware of your surroundings — that sometimes filling out a 13-page application is just not feasible. It's just too much," Amacher said. "But being able to sit down with a person and guide them through it, being able to build that relationship is very powerful. It removes a lot of barriers. For the most part we really try to be a one-stop shop and cover as many bases as we can for the community's needs."
BACK FROM THE BRINK
Juan Salas, 23, is one of Chinn's recent success stories.
Growing up in the foster care system, Salas joined the Air Force at 17 and served in the military for five years. When he got out, he moved to Humboldt County to be closer to family, but a bout of depression and the loss of several people close to him drove him to the streets.
"I went through a lot at that time and I kind of stopped caring and gave up a little bit. ... I just basically saw this whole other world that I had never imagined. I never imagined I would live out there like that," he said.
After about four months of homelessness, Salas said he realized that he didn't want to live that life anymore.
"I heard about the Betty Chinn Center while I was out there, and at that point I had basically burned all my bridges and ruined a lot of relationships that could have helped me," he said. "So I was coming here for about two weeks trying to get resumes together, and they were very, very helpful about everything. And then I met Betty and she's just the most kind woman, you know? She just took me in under her wing and she was like, 'There's something about you. You look like you have potential. You're gonna make it.' That's all I needed to hear: that I have some value in this world."
Chinn was able to offer Salas housing in the rooms above the center, where up to four adults are able to stay rent-free in exchange for work in and around the center. The housing assistance allows them to start saving money and putting their lives back together.
"Just having a place to stay, just that one thing changes everything," Salas said. "It's that basis that makes everything a little bit easier when you take steps toward getting back on your feet. I started getting job offers and interviews, and now I'm doing really well. I'm working two jobs and doing well in life. I got reconnected with my family, and it's been a journey. I can say that I don't ever want to go back to that. It was a dark time in my life that I want to leave in the past. I just want to go to school and basically just set these goals and reach them."
Salas said many people have misconceptions about the homeless population and that they don't realize how quickly life can be turned upside down by unexpected events.
"It's a thin line between having things that you want and living the life that you want, and just (having) nothing," he said. "I think a lot of people just don't see that. It can take just one emotional trauma, or anything traumatic that happens in your life, to fall downhill to that. ... It's very dehumanizing being out there. It really felt like just being a stray dog or something. Man, it was something else. I'll never forget that. Those four months of my life will always be with me.
"I don't think a lot of people understand what (homeless people) have been through, what's happened in their past to get them to that point. A lot of it is mental, they just can't function in normal society. But at the same time, a lot of them are very intelligent and they're good people with great personalities. They just need support, that's all. ... I feel like a lot of people, all they would like to do is have someone listen to them and sit there and talk with them. That right there is huge."
Reflecting on all that the center has accomplished in the past year, Chinn offered thanks to everyone who donated time, money, materials and other support to get it up and running.
"Normally when you do something for the homeless, nobody likes it or supports it, and the people who do support it don't say anything," Chinn said. "But lots of people have come forward and said they want to be part of this. It's very unique. This center is a form of community, and we want to make it work. Basically, they support us by their trust and belief in us. For people who don't like it, we're a target. But that's OK. We still believe in what we're doing. But we still have lots to learn."
For more information about the center and its programs, stop by the open house Sunday, visit http://bettychinn.org/day-center or call 407-3833.
Contact Clay McGlaughlin at 441-0516.
IF YOU GO
What: Open house
Where: Betty Kwan Chinn Day Center, 133 Seventh St., Eureka
When: Noon to 4 p.m. Sunday