The St. Paul’s warming center in Visalia closed its doors last month, possibly forever. Pastor Suzy Ward doesn’t believe the city would approve another low-barrier shelter for the homeless next year, because local residents have been critical of its presence since its inception in the winter of 2017. But although the warming center may never reopen at St. Paul’s, another warming center may be in the works at another location.
According to Homeless Initiatives Program Coordinator, Chaz Feliz, the next shelter may be a permanent one.
“A small committee including myself, KTHA, Suzy, the City of Visalia, the faith community, and a couple interested community stakeholders have been meeting regularly since late 2018 to help move things forward for a permanent low-barrier shelter in the city.”
It’s unclear when or where this permanent shelter will be established due to the scope and scale of the project. There aren’t many viable locations for such a shelter, so construction may be the only option. The process of simply getting the building approved can be time consuming and expensive. Not to mention the cost of running such a facility year round could be extreme. Ward mentioned that a similar permanent shelter in San Benito has a yearly operating cost of $2.5 million.
In the meantime, warming center organizers like Ward and Felix may have to settle for another temporary facility at a different location for 2019-2020.
“Maybe we can operate three months in the summer and three months in the winter or something like that—a warming center and a cooling center,” Ward explained. “And work towards a twelve-month facility, but we have to fine those avenues of financial support.”
But will local property managers really rent out their space to the homeless?. Landlords have been known to reject tenants with a history of being homeless despite their enrollment in housing programs for fear of damage to their property or because they simply harbored a negative perception of the homeless community.
And even if they do find someone willing to rent the space out or find another faith-based community to donate their space for free, there’s the always the question of whether or not the city and local residents would welcome a homeless shelter in their neighborhood. It’s likely that the new location will have to be larger than St. Paul’s to meet the growing number of homeless. Ward’s shelter alone was reaching max capacity of 100 homeless a night at the warming center on multiple occasions.
That means wherever the intended location of the new shelter may be, the city and the local residents will have to tangle with the idea of large groups of homeless potentially traveling through their neighborhood on a daily basis. It seems like a difficult idea to sell, but Ward and her supporters have done it before—twice.
Their success seems to stem from the growing need for low-barrier shelters. In Tulare County, homelessness has risen 400% just in the last year. Felix emphasized that our county in particular is chronically under resourced compared to the local need. Most shelters in the area have strict admission policies and are typically segregated by gender. This leaves many homeless couples or families out on the street.
The warming center at St. Paul’s, however, accepted pretty much everyone regardless of their sobriety or who they had with them. During its lifespan, the shelter took in many furry friends and even a couple with a baby. And that kind of acceptance policy has helped keep families together.
Alejandro Torro,19, and his mother are originally from New Jersey and have been homeless for ever since his mother had a falling out with an ex. They’ve been staying at the warming center together for the past three months. Usually, a traditional shelter would not allow that Torro stay in the same facility as his mother. But because the warming center was a low-barrier shelter with no gender restriction policies, they were able to stay under the same roof.
But with the warming center closing, their time together might be limited. Torro explained that if their plan to rent a place in Three Rivers doesn’t work out, they’ll be forced to stay at seperate shelters, something that Torro does not look forward to because they’ve never been apart like that before.
According to Torro, the hardest part of all of this has been the lack of empathy he’s experienced from the community, and even from some of staff at the warming center. He was, however, grateful for the three months that he didn’t have to worry about having a roof over his head.
Sometimes that’s enough to help people get back on their feet.
Randy Jones and Maria Aldana are a couple who lost everything. They went from having 40 grand in savings to being unemployed and living in their car. They drifted from truck stop to truck stop until they eventually found themselves at the warming center. For them, the shelter provided an opportunity to cultivate some security during an uncertain time.
“It created a lot of stability for us,” Aldana explained. “I actually got a job while we were here.”
“And that was the most important thing,” Jones added. “A little time and stability. We’ve been here about a month and a half. It didn’t take long for our lives to go down hill, but it’s not taking very long for our lives to go back up hill.”
Aldana and Jones are hopeful about the future and thank Jesus every day. And it’s arguably thanks to the warming center that they feel that way. So it’s concerning for organizers like Ward and Felix who understand the benefits of a low barrier shelter.
Not only has the warming center provided shelter and stability, but it’s also provided medical aid, mental health services, and enrolled the most vulnerable in programs that help homeless find permanent housing. All of that will be going away for now, but that doesn’t mean people on the front lines and behind the scenes will stop working towards a more permanent solution for our homeless population.
“Fortunately, we have some new funding coming in soon, that interested agencies can access for a shelter and other homeless projects…” explained Felix. “It’s challenging, as folks across the state know very well, but I’m hopeful key parties will continue to work and try to identify some solutions that make sense for our community. “
Until alternate for St. Paul’s comes around, organizers and the homeless will have to take lessons from the little church on Central and have a little faith.
In the words of Randy Jones, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”