Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – It’s one of those nights that feel much colder than the temperature, and bitterly so. Even at 45 degrees, downtowners are pulling up their collars and bustling from warm car to warm building to keep the cold from reaching their bones.
The good news if you have nowhere indoors to sleep is that it’s not going to rain until tomorrow afternoon. But that’s bad news too, since clear skies put the temperature in freefall. Worse, the coming storm front is riding in on a wave of frigid air.
It doesn’t seem there are 10 more degrees to lose, but that’s the forecast – in reality, it will drop another 15 degrees.
For eight souls who will be lodged at the Arcata United Methodist Church (AUMC), the chill won’t be relevant, at least tonight. Out of their usual alcoves and alleys, they’ll bed down in the church’s relatively warm Social Hall.
The Extreme Weather Shelter is a program of the Arcata House Partnership. It’s managed from the Annex – the former Arcata Endeavor building across from Arcata’s transit center.
While almost any winter’s night is one best spent indoors, that’s not an option for houseless residents of Arcata. They’ll be holed up in alcoves, under porches, in the forest or whatever nook or cranny they can find that offers some protection from the elements – and from the police.
In scheduling the shelter nights, Arcata House Outreach Coordinator Dahl Simms studies NOAA alerts, various weather forecasts and, he says, “I chew on that based on my experience.”
If the raw temperature or wind chill is forecast for 34 degrees, if there’s an inch or more of rain in one day, or if there’s a half-inch or more of rain over three or four days, an Extreme Weather Shelter might be called.
Simms has to be judicious because, at roughly $450 each, he only has the budget to run so many shelters over the entire winter. Ten, to be exact, maybe 15 if he stretches resources – for more than four months of wet, cold, beastly weather.
“We don’t have that many nights,” Dahl laments. Tonight will be the third Extreme Weather Shelter of the season.
The process begins at 6 a.m. on days that Dahl foresees as tough enough to justify it.
Around 8 a.m., he alerts the troops – those who will be called into service for the effort. These include Arcata House kitchen staff, chaperones and the local media who will publicize the opportunity. The four participating churches – AUMC, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, St. Mary’s Catholic Church and Arcata First Presbyterian Church – are notified that if anyone shows up on their doorstep asking for shelter, as sometimes happens, they should be directed to the Annex for Extreme Weather Shelter intake that day. Depending on the day of the week, one of those churches will host the night’s shelter.
At 3 p.m., the Annex starts intake. Applicants – limited to adults only – are interviewed and will probably be accepted for the night, unless their behavior is disruptive.
Up to 16 people are offered a shower, fresh, dry clothes and a hot meal. Dinner entrées are provided by the Blue Lake Rancheria, with sides added out of other donations. Last Tuesday night, dinner was a comforting pasta goulash, salad and pumpkin pie suitable for any Arcata dinner table.
Conversation is light as participants eat dinner. Some folks keep to themselves. Eventually, everyone is clean, fed and ready to go. They leave their packs at the Annex, are set up with clean bedding and then board the Arcata House van for transport to the church.
On arrival at the 11th Street church, passengers disembark, grab their bedding and bustle inside as the temperature continues to fall. The church’s roomy Social Hall will board them for the night. Sleeping pads and bags are rolled out with minimal conversation, and the lodgers settle in to relax until the 10 p.m. lights out.
Some sort the small possessions they’ve brought, look at their phones or break out books, while others laze and chat. Several of the menfolk head out back for a smoke.
The Big Man’s Club
“Welcome to the Big Man’s Club,” says a smoker just outside the back door.
A first quarter moon lends pale light to the frigid Arcata Bottom, but not on the back stoop. It’s in the shadow of a huge cypress tree, where sour cig smoke and boisterous conversation temper the smokers’ chill, if not that of the chaperone there to monitor them.
Amid sour smoke miasma, the men swap stories, but it’s mostly Joe (not his real name) doing the talking. An Arcata resident since 1990, he, like the others, has had long experience with the streets. The police are a topic back to which conversations often circle.
Asked where he’d be tonight if the shelter weren’t running, Joe says, “Where I always am.” That’s a little corner of Arcata with an overhang to keep the weather off him, mostly. He props up an umbrella to stop the wind.
This sets off an epic story about the time the police, looking for a burglar one rainy night, came calling at his secluded remove. The lead officer thought he had his man, but wound up shamed for his zealousness, Joe said. He invited the naive officer to witness his bare feet and come and feel his blankets, warmed by body heat, to prove he hadn’t been anywhere recently.
“This guy was hell bent on being ‘the dude’!” he bellows. “He thought he had his catch.”
A natural raconteur, Joe’s tale is well received, and the laughter propels him on to new heights of storytelling. “Really, the barefoot homeless guy?” he says, to gales of laughter. “That’s who you think was rustling up a house down the road?”
He wrings the last details from the triumphal tale, offering a scenario of his tormentor suffering humiliation by his night duty peers. “You can only imagine the heckling he got,” he says.
The saga of victimization, a canny reversal and a vanquished adversary probably isn’t that different from those told in Big Man’s Clubs everywhere – whether in mahogany-paneled rooms over brandy and cigars, sitting on logs around a campfire in the wild or even under a frozen moonshadow on the Bottoms, with cars barreling past on State Route 255 in the distance.
Being outside, and even using the restroom, requires a chaperone. There are two: Larry M. Haven Jr. and Andreina Valerio. They take turns watching the smokers.
Valerio is a Humboldt State political science student from Oakland. She found herself helping Arcata House Partnership after signing up for an internship class. “I wanted to give back,” she says. “It’s eye opening.”
After Valerio watches over the smokers – a handful of men, some maybe twice her age – Haven comes out to spell her. Valerio heads back into the drafty but much warmer church room and hefts her entertainment for the night – a heavy textbook titled Economics for Today.
Haven is the resident watchman and AUMC boardmember, having come up from a rough previous existence living along the Hammond Trail. He was given lodging at the church one night during his homeless phase, then made himself useful and wound up being offered a job, room, board and a board position.
Haven credits Pastors Jason and Bethany Cseh for giving him the opportunity. “He started putting me to work,” he says. “Next thing you know, I’m on the Board of Trustees and have a master key. This is beautiful what they’ve done for me.”
Between duties, Haven roams the universe, one hand holding a small tablet with a space war sim game in progress, the other working a phone running a calculator app. Saving the galaxy and protecting the church takes some serious multitasking.
But his vigilance never wavers. “I do not want to see a cigarette on the ground,” he admonishes the smokers, dustpan at the ready.
Inside, the nonsmoking lodgers are all laid out. Some asleep, some nibbling peanut butter cups, others reading. It’s only 6:42 p.m., but having been dark since 5 p.m., it feels much later.
Simms pulls up at the church with a late arrival from the Annex, someone who came in after the others had left. There’s still more driving to come, as one of the night’s guests broke off a Q-Tip way inside his ear canal, and had to be taken to the Mad River ER to have it removed. Simms will head back to the hospital and wait for him for as long as it takes, then shuttle him over to the church.
The unexpected wrinkle isn’t the last of the night, but it’s not unusual. Simms and his wife Judy Kidd, Arcata House Partnership’s supervisor of client services, have taken dozens of people to the hospital for this and that malady.
One woman had been denied shelter that night because she was “out of it,” Simms said – loud and drunk. Someone remarks that the whole Annex was quieter after she left. Simms says he doesn’t turn away all drunks; just the ones so far gone they’ll disrupt others.
Another of the night’s shelter applicants did what others sometimes do – gamed the system by interviewing, using the meal and shower services and then leaving for the night. “That’s not what it’s for,” says Simms, but he’s resigned to the fact that he can’t make anyone stay at the shelter. “Cost of doing business.”
Also not uncommon is that one of the men lodged at the church ended up leaving at 1 a.m. He had an allergy problem, but others have left for other reasons. One had an electronic ankle monitor go off at 2 a.m., bringing police. “The monitor system thought that he had bolted,” Simms said.
Even the weather didn’t stick to the program. Simms saw one forecast that calculated wind chill at 24 degrees, and used the datum in scheduling the Extreme Weather Shelter. But the ground temperature low came in at a balmy 29 – still below freezing.
That’s harsh enough but even still, the shelter ran at half capacity this night, baffling the experts. “I can’t figure out the dynamic,” Simms said.
It’s still dark the next morning when the lodgers must arise for return to the Annex. The church Social Hall is left as it was, with no trace of its guests. Their bedding will be taken to Emerald City Laundry, which washes everything for free.
At the Annex, everyone tucks into a fortifying breakfast of pancakes, eggs and coffee. Volunteer Leslie Zondervan-Droz downplays her flapjack-cooking skills. “I’m pretty good at warming things up,” she says, modestly.
“You are a great cook!” declares Robert Griffith, CalFresh outreach coordinator. “You put so much love into it.”
Griffith stands next to two bulging bins of sack lunches destined for the CalFresh truck. He makes 45 per day, 55 on Mondays for Arcata Bay Crossing tenants.
Everyone got through the night, and has some kind of plan for the future – near or long term – including the chaperones.
Havens looks to join Arcata House as part of the morning staff, helping others get off the streets and lift themselves out of homelessness, as was done for him. “It’s not a flophouse,” he says of Arcata House Partnership’s transitional housing. “You’ve got to sign up for case management.”
Valerio hopes to put her experience and education to work, crafting transitional housing policy for the county. That will help wrangle funding for the needed programs.
Simms is looking ahead to the next Extreme Weather Shelter. A solid week of rain has been forecast, so chances are the shelter will be back in business before long.
It’s still clear in Arcata though, and the Arcata Ball Park field is white with a crust of frost. Into this cold and later, rain, the night’s guests are headed, and tonight, they may not be inside. Their ambitions are even more near-term than Simms’ – to survive the coming day and night.
One of the overnighters says last night was “great,” but “tonight, I don’t know.”
The weather is navigable, but police are a tougher challenge. “Every time I sleep in a new place I get trouble, but I’m used to that,” said the guest. “The cops aren’t very friendly. They constantly upend us. A few have a thirst for blood and the others are covering for them. They get together and decide how to make us miserable.”
Until tonight, hunger shouldn’t be a problem. All the night’s guests leave with a paper bag of donated calories – cereal, milk, string cheese, yogurt, apple, muffin and two hard-boiled eggs plus an optional quart of eggnog.
Arcata House Partnership’s Extreme Weather Shelter is the only one of its kind in the county, though the Department of Health & Human Services offers vouchers for motel stays through its Winter Shelter Program.
Arcata House maintains a special account for the Extreme Weather Shelter, to which anyone can donate. Cash helps offset costs for staff and related expenses, though food donations are always welcome at the Annex, 501 E St.
Tax-deductible online donations may be made at arcatahouse.org. If you’d like your contribution to go to the Extreme Weather Shelter or any other Arcata House program, call after you make your donation and let them know at (707) 822-4528. Arcata House likes volunteers, too.
Donations may also be mailed, with a note on the check comment line directing it to the desired program.
Send to Arcata House Partnership, 1005 11th St., Arcata, CA 95521. Still another way to donate to Arcata House is through the Humboldt Area Foundation at hafoundation.org.
“There are so many people sleeping on our streets in this bad weather,” said Darlene Spoor, Arcata House director. “We can’t do it without our faith-based partners and our community that provides funding and donates food, hats, socks and shoes.”