Health & Medicine

West Sacramento homeless project a work in progress

Terry Hughes, 54, enjoys a day with his 1-year-old son Terry Hughes Jr., at the Old Town Inn last month in West Sacramento. Hughes is divorced and sees his son three to four days a week despite not having a permanent housing situation.
Terry Hughes, 54, enjoys a day with his 1-year-old son Terry Hughes Jr., at the Old Town Inn last month in West Sacramento. Hughes is divorced and sees his son three to four days a week despite not having a permanent housing situation.

Inside a crackerbox of a room in a woebegone motel once frequented by drug pushers and prostitutes, Christine Lawrence and Will Williams call themselves blessed.

They have hot water, four walls to shield them from the elements and a field nearby where they can walk their three dogs. Most importantly, they said, they believe they see a path out of the homeless lifestyle they have known for the better part of two decades.

The couple were among the 65 people who two months ago relocated from a river encampment to the Old Town Inn in West Sacramento, part of a pilot program called Bridge to Housing. Their new life isn’t exactly serene: Loud arguments are common among the residents, and fights occasionally break out. The drinkers still drink, sometimes partying late into the night. Stoners and hookers wander into the parking lot with their temptations.

Still, “we’re blessed and very thankful,” said Lawrence, 45. She had lived along the Sacramento River for 17 years before moving into the inn sandwiched between a bowling alley and an open field on West Capitol Avenue’s motel row.

Williams, her partner, nodded. “It’s time to grow up now,” he said. “It’s time to move on from that other life.”

Williams and Lawrence are taking part in an effort by Yolo County officials to shepherd homeless people who had been living in a river encampment near the Broderick Boat Ramp. The camp has been cleared for development and its former residents have been moved into temporary housing, where they get help obtaining Social Security and medical coverage, treatment for mental illness and substance abuse, and job and life counseling. The goal is to find them permanent places to live.

Yolo County is collaborating on the project with West Sacramento officials, local churches and private industry groups, with the aim of reducing the area’s homeless population, estimated at about 475 people. The city and county each contributed $50,000.

During its first two months, the project has produced some impressive results, said Karen Larsen, Yolo County’s mental health director and alcohol and drug services administrator. More than 81 percent of residents now have health insurance, compared with 42 percent when the project began. Nearly 70 percent have secured key documents, such as birth certificates or ID cards, that have allowed them to apply for Social Security benefits or jobs. About 60 percent are enrolled in CalFresh, previously known as the food stamp program. Half are searching for permanent housing.

Organizers of the project, originally scheduled to end Jan. 31, will report those numbers to the Yolo Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, and ask the panel to extend the program at least another month at a cost of $60,000, split between the city and county. Bridge to Housing is overbudget, they said, because of unforeseen expenses including motel maintenance and pest control.

“Things are going very well,” said Lisa Baker, chief executive officer of Yolo County Housing, which is helping to oversee the project. With commitment, dollars and collaboration, she said, Bridge to Housing “absolutely is replicable” in other communities.

Representatives from the League of California Cities and Solano County are among those who have visited the site and expressed interest in launching similar programs. Sacramento Steps Forward, a nonprofit that coordinates many of the region’s homeless services, is trying a different approach, said spokeswoman Maya Wallace. In the coming weeks, it will roll out its Common Sense project, sending outreach workers to areas where homeless people gather to assess needs and “match people with the housing available in our inventory,” Wallace said.

At the Old Town Inn in West Sacramento, case managers armed with pamphlets and clipboards regularly roam the parking lot where residents gather during the day and knock on doors to make sure folks are making progress and honoring their commitments. “You’ve got to go to Woodland for that medical appointment,” one staffer told a resident on a recent afternoon.

Program participants are required to take advantage of the counseling and other services offered and to abide by rules that bar overnight guests, alcohol use outside of rooms and fighting, among other behaviors. Residents are responsible for controlling and cleaning up after their pets, which numbered 69 on relocation day.

People who accumulate four infraction “points” are booted from the property, although they can regain their spot by performing community services or taking counseling, said Steve Kruse, 55, a former river dweller who now serves as the motel’s resident manager and troubleshooter.

As of last week, seven people had been expelled from the inn, Larsen said. Two were picked up by police on warrants, one was forced out because of altercations with roommates, another for domestic violence, and three for drug abuse.

“We have had our share of problems,” Larsen said. She noted that at least a third of the residents came into the program acknowledging that they had psychiatric issues and an equal number admitted an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Those issues can create a volatile environment, residents said.

“Everyone here brought the river in with them,” said Ronnie Cleveland, sitting on a bench in the motel parking lot with his chihuahua, Merlin, in his lap. “It gets wild out here at night sometimes. The good thing is that I can close my door, and whatever I do behind closed doors is my business.”

Cleveland shares a room at the motel with his wife, Mary. As he spoke, pet cats stalked pigeons, and a pit bull pup romped across the asphalt. Empty beer cans littered the area. Voices rose now and then. Some residents exchanged smiles, others sneers.

The former river campers, said Cleveland and others, are like any family: Loyal and loving at times, mean and dysfunctional at others. That was particularly evident during the holidays, when more than one motel resident “smoked a bowl” of marijuana or “drank too much” and caused trouble, Larsen said.

Adjusting to a life inside, Williams and others said, is more complicated than it might seem. “Living so close to other people, it tends to set off my depression,” Williams said. Others have lashed out at the rules and the loss of freedom.

“It’s very hard at first,” said Kruse, the resident manager, who sports a teardrop tattoo under his left eye. “You don’t just step into it without missing a beat. You have to evolve. You can’t randomly yell at people on the street or things like that.

“A lot of these folks have been locked up, and when you’ve been in prison for a long time the last thing you want is to be living in a little box,” he said. “Sometimes, you have to step outside and take a deep breath. When you do, you realize how cold it can get out there at 2 a.m., and you’re thankful for the shelter.”

Call The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @Cynthia_Hubert.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee