Karen ‘Fox’ Olson: Together, we can do this

Like most people in Humboldt County, I am in tune with the weather. Many of us have heard someone say, “If you don’t like the weather right now, just wait, it will change.”

Fall is typically the most beautiful time of year in Arcata. September is our “summer” and October usually isn’t so bad either. But as a homeless service provider the brisk, cool mornings are a signal that winter is coming. And winter, for the homeless and those of us who offer services to them, is not a good thing.

Since Arcata House Partnership acquired the Arcata Night Shelter out on Boyd Road, I have an increased understanding of the day-to-day realities many of our clients face.

Early in my career I realized, if you have a body you have to take it somewhere, so just figuring out where you can “be” can be a problem.

Many homeless people just walk around all day. Some folks on the street are lucky enough to have a car or camper, but people without that luxury must carry their worldly possessions around with them in a backpack or try to stash their stuff in a safe place so they don’t look “homeless.” And there really isn’t a “safe place.”

Thievery on the street is rampant and folks are constantly having their driver’s license or debit card stolen. Add bad weather and homelessness can be a pretty miserable existence.

Fox badgeWe provide shelter when we can, but it’s not always enough. Without a valid way to prove your identity, your options are limited.

Recently we received a small grant from the Arcata Foundation to help clients replace their lost or stolen ID so they can apply for benefits, employment or housing.

Our Night Shelter is small compared with big cities’ and much more intimate than most shelters. The clients are picked up in the afternoon at the AHP Annex by the Arcata Ball Park. New clients are screened and agree in writing to follow the basic rules.

We participate in a countywide information tracking system, so we gather a variety of data on clients, including mental health status, place they slept the night before and whether or not they are getting all the benefits for which they are eligible.

We also ask clients about their history or “stories.” How did they become homeless and how long have they been in Humboldt County? Some folks are just “passing through” to the next big city. Others have lost housing, or a job.

A surprisingly large percentage has been in Humboldt County for several years or all their lives.

They often mention families who are unwilling to help them, primarily because they have “burned too many bridges.” Many are struggling with serious mental illness or substance abuse.

The shelter enrollment increases as the month progresses and the weather worsens. This year we had to institute a lottery system because our use permit limits the number of people we can serve. It’s heartbreaking to turn folks back to the street.

As winter approaches and more clients come into shelter we try to rotate so everyone gets a chance to rest and eat a hearty dinner prepared by one of the local faith-based congregations.

Many of you already participate in preparing food for the shelter and we are grateful for that support. Meals aren’t fancy, but clients report that the food at our shelter is the best.

Cooking for the shelter isn’t limited, if you want to cook for a night, you can call board member Susan Riesel at (707) 822-9431 and she will tell you the details.

This year, we have been working with McKinleyville Family Resource Center, Humboldt Area Foundation and six local churches to be ready to swing into action for our Regional Extreme Weather Shelter (REWS).

This shelter will be offered to regular clients and clients who do not normally use the shelter when we have exceptionally cold weather or many rainy days in a row.

Last year, the McKinleyville Family Resource Center marshaled a wide variety of support from their community and we had shelters in both Arcata and McKinleyville.

This year, we decided that we could do a better job of serving clients by coordinating our efforts and only running one shelter in the North Bay Area.

We will enroll clients from both Arcata and McKinleyville at our Annex where they will receive a shower, clean dry clothing and dinner.

After dinner, they will be transported to a local church to spend the night. We are grateful to our churches, who have offered to open their facilities, turn on the heat and welcome folks in need.

We are encouraged that Blue Lake Casino will donate prepared meals that we can microwave, to Emerald City Laundromat for help with laundry and to the many people who have made donations.

The REWS does not come without expenses; additional costs will include running our building for extra hours and paying for for heat, lights and hot water as well as staff and transportation costs.

We received a car full of blankets from St. Joseph Hospital, which was fantastic, and we have been saving warm clothing (long sleeved T-shirts and sweats) for people to sleep in.

If you would like to help, please specify that your gift is for the Regional Extreme Weather Shelter.

We are pleased and enthused about working with MFRC but we are also happy that fewer people will be sleeping in an unsafe and wet place on cold winter nights.

There is an amazing transformation that occurs when a person’s basic needs are met, like cleaning up in hot water, warm food in a belly and a safe place to lay down with uninterrupted sleep.

Thanks again to our whole Northern Bay community — together we can do this!

Karen Fox Olson, MSW is celebrating her 13th year working with homeless folks — she prefers working directly with people, but she is beginning to realize that the “M” in MSW stands for meetings.


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