When a woman knocked on the window of Jenna LeClerc’s 1988 Chevy cargo van two years ago, LeClerc didn’t know the brief encounter would alter the direction of her life.
LeClerc, her husband and her three children were living in the van and the woman – whose name LeClerc never learned – politely asked if they were homeless. She gave LeClerc the phone number of Debbie Schoeneshoefer, the leader of Elk Grove’s Homeless Assistance Resource Team.
Schoeneshoefer helped the LeClerc family move into an orderly, well lit house on Meadow Grove Drive, which as been remodeled to serve as a transitional living facility for homeless families.
“We went from bathing with a three gallon jug of water to we took a shower for over an hour, the five of us just kept rotating in and out, in and out,” LeClerc said. “Just a long, hot shower that we hadn’t had in about six months.”
The house is one of three purchased by the city of Elk Grove to help people who are homeless. Last week, the City Council approved the purchase of a fourth house and authorized the city manager to seek a fifth.
“It’s really altering the lives of the children, especially if they’re in generational poverty,” Schoeneshoefer said. “The mothers become empowered when they see that their kids are doing well... While we’re stabilizing the parents, we’re changing the direction of the children’s lives.”
Families are allowed to stay in the Meadow Grove Drive house for roughly one school year, or nine months. They pay $125 per room per month to Sacramento Self-Help Housing, which owns and runs the homes. The families get the money back at the end of their stay so they leave with some savings or a jump start on a security deposit.
Each family gets their own fridge in the shared kitchen; a line of rainbow-colored, smiley face magnets added personality to one on a recent visit. There’s a shared living room with comfortable couches and a dining area. Three suites of rooms provide some privacy.
The home blends in with other ranch-style houses in this middle-class neighborhood near Old Town Elk Grove.
In an office, residents meet with mentors and housing specialists to clear up tickets or evictions, shore up their credit and look for a more permanent place to stay.
LeClerc’s family now lives in a small house in Sacramento’s Tahoe Park neighborhood with a huge backyard for her kids to play in without having to watch for cars. She can cook dinner without having to unpack a cook stove. When her middle son, Henry, needs some time alone, he has his own space to relax.
“It’s such a huge blessing to have a home, an actual home,” LeClerc said.
The families currently living in the Meadow Grove Drive house are the third cohort to come through the house. They often find the program through other low-income services like the Elk Grove Food Bank, and they have to prove they’re from Elk Grove. Many have gone on to permanent housing, but one left for another program and another went back to someone who abused her in the past, according to Schoeneshoefer.
The home approved for city purchase Wednesday evening, in the 5700 block of Moon Creek Way, would play a slightly different role with quicker turnaround, said Sarah Bontrager, housing and public services manager for Elk Grove.
The Moon Creek Way home will serve single adults, while the next home the city purchases will serve families with children. The city is calling them “navigation centers.” The money for the homes comes from $5 million in state funds intended for that purpose.
Bontrager said Elk Grove’s council around 2011 recognized the need for transitional housing. Sacramento Self-Help Housing had provided housing counseling in the city since the early 2000s and specialized in the scattered-site, shared housing model.
“It fit well for us financially and was scaled appropriately for our homeless population,” Bontrager said. She estimated Elk Grove has between 100 and 150 homeless people, though she noted that counts of the population are notoriously difficult. A biennial count released last year by Sacramento Steps Forward estimated a lower homeless population of 40 people in Elk Grove.
The model – placing homeless people in single-family homes scattered throughout the community – is similar to an approach approved by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors in November.
Sacramento County recently chose Sacramento Self-Help Housing to manage 15 properties serving 75 people. The original plan was to create one 75-bed, full-service rehousing shelter, but staff couldn’t find an appropriate site.
Instead, the Department of Human Assistance suggested the scattered-site approach – turning 15 properties into temporary housing for 5 homeless people and one house monitor each.
County staff and Self-Help Housing are currently finalizing contracts with the goal of opening the first site in late February or early March, said Eduardo Ameneyro, the county’s homeless services division manager.
“They’re supposed to function like a shelter... but a much smaller environment,” said Julie Field, homeless services program manager. “The guests will meet with a case manager, there will be a case plan developed. The guests will do things like looking for housing and going to medical appointments.”
Field said the scattered site approach might open up opportunities for people with shared characteristics who might be uncomfortable in a more crowded setting – for instance, a youth house, a house for women or a site for LGBT residents.
As part of a larger network of county homeless programs, the shelters are geared toward the hardest-to-serve population – those who have been on the streets the longest with the most serious substance abuse or mental health issues, and those who haven’t sought a shelter bed because they have pets or partners who wouldn’t be allowed.
“We’re going to have people who have been on the streets for a very long time,” Field said. “If they have some mental or behavioral health issues, it might be easier with a smaller group.”
Elk Grove has exported other parts of its model as well – its HART group was the first in the region and today there are active HARTs in Citrus Heights, Rancho Cordova, Carmichael and Folsom.
“Obviously it’s a model that’s had a lot of success in getting community members and volunteers involved in serving the homeless population,” Bontrager said. “The homeless population looks different in different parts of the region and I think that all of the jurisdictions are trying to promote efforts that fit the population that they have.”