The Santa Clarita Valley’s Bridge to Home emergency winter shelter on Drayton Street in Newhall closes its doors for the summer on Sunday, as organizers work to continue to provide services for the homeless and other people in need during the off-season as well.
The shelter opened on Dec. 1 and stayed open two weeks longer than in previous years, though the overall number of people served was down just slightly compared to last year. And for the second year, the number of families seeking shelter dropped off dramatically from levels in 2009-2010.
“We’re down a little bit in total individual people, in total bed nights, as we call them, from last year,” said Bridge to Home Executive Director Tim Davis, who has headed the nonprofit volunteer organization that has operated the shelter each winter since 1995. He has been Bridge to Home’s executive director since 2006.
Davis’s guesses why the dip? “One, the economy is a little better, and two, we didn’t have as much rain this winter,” he said. “So, which is the important variable and which is the lesser important variable? We don’t know. But those two things tell me we’re down a little bit, but we’re not down a whole bunch. Both the economy and the weather are positive. I would think we’d come down even more, but we’re staying where we are.”
Total bed nights for individual clients through the shelter’s March 18 closing last year were 5,505, compared to 5,450 through March 18 of this year, Davis said. Since the shelter stayed open through March 31 this year, “It’s probably going to be over 6,000 bed nights. So when you measure apples to apples, last year to this year, on average we’re down about a half a person per night.”
But where have all the families gone the past two seasons?
“Families have really been unpredictable the last couple of years,” Davis said. “Three years ago, we were averaging over three families a night. Last year we averaged less than 1 1/2 families a night, and this year we’re averaging about 1 3/4 a night. And I honestly can’t tell you where the families went. I mean, we planned for and expected for the last couple of years seeing more than three families a night on average. But they didn’t show up. It’s going in the opposite direction for the singles. We’re seeing more singles and fewer families. I don’t know what causes that.”
Davis is not alone. It’s a trend, but inexplicable so far.
“I’ve talked to other providers like L.A. Family Housing and Valley Oasis and the folks out in Palmdale at Grace Resources, and they’re saying similar things,” Davis said. “They don’t know where the families went, either.”
Extended Season Result of a Deal
This year’s extended season was the result of an agreement between the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the county agency which provides part of the shelter’s funding, and the city of Santa Clarita, which owns the property on Drayton Street where the shelter is located.
“The contract for the use of the land is between the city and LAHSA, and LAHSA makes it available to us,” Davis said. “LAHSA doesn’t care how many nights we’re open. They’re only going to reimburse us for a certain number of nights. The city didn’t care, so we opened Dec. 1 and we’re closing this Sunday morning, so we’ll have been open 121 nights this year instead of the usual 105.”
It’s up to Bridge to Home to cover the difference between funds it gets from LAHSA and the actual cost of operating the shelter. That has been an increasing challenge as LAHSA funding for the Santa Clarita shelter has declined in the past few years.
More Bed Nights, Less County Funding
“LAHSA is running an experiment with a different way of running two shelters in the county, and because of that, they don’t have enough money to do what they usually do for the winter shelters,” Davis said.
“What that means for us is two things: in the past, LAHSA funded us for 105 nights with 54 beds,” he said. “This year, they’re funding us for 91 nights and 38 beds. And this is where the numbers get all wacked up. The difference between operating at 121 nights with 54 beds and 91 nights with 38 beds is just short of $70,000. (Bridge to Home) is going to be covering almost all of that expense.”
Funding the Shortfall, Operating ‘Lean’
Bridge to Home’s funding comes from three main sources. “One is cash we raise from our various fundraising activities,” Davis said. “The second is all the in-kind donations, like people (who give us their time to drive the van, or be the courtesy patrol at night, or be the people bringing in all the meals, or donating plastic knives, forks and spoons. Those are the in-kind donations. And then finally it’s county grant money from LAHSA.”
Davis credits the shelter’s now-veteran staff and seasoned serial volunteers for their exceptional efficiency; they maximize every donated dollar and hour. It’s what business owners would call a “lean” operation.
“Annette Guzman has been the shelter manager for seven years, and she just runs a beautiful operation,” he said. “And we have our various volunteers who coordinate activities for us. Mike Craig coordinates our drivers, and I’ve talked to him, like, twice this season. He has it under control. So does Alyssa, who coordinates the various (volunteer) hosts and security patrolling. It’s a very well-put together machine these days, with good people making it happen very nicely.”
Strategic Development & New Programs
That leaves Davis more time to focus on strategic development, with all efforts directed to eventually establishing a permanent location to provide shelter and services to homeless people. Step by step, one service at a time, the organization is building a Bridge to Home for those who need it.
“We started our Healthy Lives dental program this past summer, and because of Annette and Alyssa and Craig and folks, I’ve been able to put more time into that,” Davis said. “So once a month on the second Saturday of every month, we do a free dental clinic, and it’s now working very nicely.
“We also decided to open up our own counseling center,” he said. “It’s called ‘The Bridge’ and it’s just getting out of the starting blocks, but it’s working. We’ve been at Bethlehem Lutheran Ministries in Canyon Country, and they’re growing and need their space, so right now we’re committed to looking for a new place for the counseling center to be.”
A third new Bridge to Home program, called Healthy Lives Medical, was launched less than a month ago.
“We’re looking to put together a program to help various nonprofits in town, put their clients in contact with our coordinator, who will then figure out how to get them into medical programs,” Davis said. “The real heart of the thing is to get clients a free medical appointment in 24-48 hours. It’s still being birthed.”
Davis aims to have that program funded and fully operational by late November, when the shelter will open for the 2013-2014 season.
“We’ll have three or four local nonprofits and three or four medical organizations working with us, and we’ll be able to get clients from all of our nonprofits medical help in a responsive manner.”
Thursday, the medical van from Northeast Valley made the last of its regular stops at the Bridge to Home shelter.
“They bring a 40-foot camper with a doctor, a nurse and an administrator,” Davis said. “Every two weeks they come up for about eight hours, and we get anywhere from eight to 12 clients in to see them for various medical needs.”
Davis and Bridge to Home seek to provide that type of service on almost a daily basis. “If someone calls in and says, ‘I have a client who has this kind of a medical need,’ 24 to 48 hours later, some kind of free medical service is being provided to that client,” Davis said.
County Program for Homeless Families
On Feb. 1, Los Angeles County established a new program called the Family Solutions Centers, which changes how Bridge to Home will plan for families in the winter 2013-2014.
“It is specifically geared to just quickly as possible take homeless families, not singles, and get them into a rented apartment,” Davis said. “They will be obviously better-funded and more powerful than we are, so I would expect the number (of families served in Santa Clarita) to come down next winter. The program didn’t start until Feb. 1, so I don’t think they affected us this winter, but we will be planning on fewer families next winter.”
Davis and Bridge to Home, which operates a separate winter shelter in Sylmar as well, has also developed strategic alliances with homeless services providers in the Antelope Valley to aid families.
“We teamed with a group in Palmdale-Lancaster called Valley Oasis,” he said. “They’re taking care of all of the families in Antelope Valley, and we’re their subcontractor taking care of families in Santa Clarita. This coming winter, if a family shows up at our shelter, naturally we’ll take them in that night, get them off the street. Our employee, who is working with the Family Solutions Center contract, will start an intake immediately, find out if this family qualifies. If they do, we take them from the shelter and put them in the Family Solutions Center program and get them a house as quickly as possible. That will be this coming winter.”
Shelter Stays at Drayton, Opens Earlier
The Santa Clarita City Council also recently agreed to let the shelter stay at the Drayton location for another three years, instead of having to move under a previous arrangement.
“It saves (Bridge to Home) and the county a lot of money,” Davis said. “Remember the bad old days when we had to move every year? Those moves would eat up almost all of the volunteer hours made available to us. So, putting together new programs to give more services, to get more clients back into the workforce, back into housing, didn’t happen. Since we’re not moving for another three years, we’re going to have the energy to continue working new programs and getting clients off the street, into a house and back into the workforce.”
The city has also agreed to allow the shelter to open earlier this coming winter than ever before. It did always seem counter to the spirit of the holiday to open right after the Thanksgiving holiday.
“We’re working with the city on a process to get to a permanent location and a year-round shelter,” Davis said. “The first really nice step is we’ve agreed through the city that from now on, the Monday before Thanksgiving is when we open up. So this coming winter, we’ll open up on Monday, Nov. 25, and we’ll close on the 31st of March.”
After getting the shelter campus buttoned up for the summer, the Bridge to Shelter crew will keep working behind the scenes to arrange additional services and raise funds for the shelter’s operations.
“Don’t have a date yet, but the next ‘Humor Helps’ fundraiser will be this summer,” Davis said.
Find out more about the Bridge to Home shelter and its programs at www.btohome.com.