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Lessons Learned At Sacramento’s New Homeless Triage Shelter

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Gina Kathari, James Donaldson, and Gregory Metcalf listen to the radio outside at the triage shelter.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

How would you convince 200 homeless people to move into a warehouse, and to trust you to help plan the rest of their lives?

These were the types of questions Anna Darzins had to answer last year. She is with Volunteers of America and coordinates care for the city’s new Winter Triage Shelter, which opened in December with a million-dollar budget for four months — and the hope that removing barriers to housing would help people who had been untreated for mental illness and addiction.

Her plan started by going to each person and asking the question: "Why are you here?"

She recently led a tour around the shelter. It’s a huge warehouse with a main entrance, public computers, a common eating and medical treatment area, and several doorless rooms reminiscent of an office setting.

A man who was introduced as David was sitting quietly by himself on a cot. Darzins says he is one of the youngest people in the shelter, if not the youngest. She made a motion to not to disturb him.

"If you ask him how he’s doing, he's always going to say, ‘Fine.' Is there anything I can do? 'No,' because he's just that agreeable,” she said. “But he has many difficulties that he experiences in his every day.”

She says he hears voices. “He hits himself in the head,” she said. “I'm trying to find a nice way to say it, but there's no nice way to say it because he's just really traumatized by the things that he hears."

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio Care Coordination Manager Anna Darzins counsels shelter guest Paula Richardson about some overwhelming stresses in Richardson's life, and the pair set a coffee date for the next day. Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

In Darzin’s office, David's name is one of 200 posted on a giant whiteboard. Each name has notes below it that include color-coded medical-care needs and details about future plans for care and housing. The list also includes a Vietnam War veteran with post traumatic stress disorder who hasn't lived inside since he returned from the war, and a 75-year-old man who was recently evicted.

Michael Turner’s name is also on that wall. "I got evicted from the home I was in,” he said “Dad passed away. The kids took over and, 'You gotta go.'”

He described homelessness as an experience. “I'm trying to get out of here ASAP,” he said.

Turner is sitting at the table of computers searching for a place to live. He says he has a stepdaughter who has offered to take him in, but he doesn’t want to be a burden.

Some residents and businesses along Del Paso Boulevard fought against locating the facility on Railroad Avenue. But Darzins says those same people ended up donating the computers that the shelter residents now use to find work and housing.

Cliff Wagner is an outgoing bear of a man who has been in and out of jail and homelessness for 20 years. He says he abandoned his car to move here and jokes the only thing he owns is his "alpha male complex."

He says the last few months in the shelter have taught him a lot, "Mostly gratitude,” he said. “Things are gonna work out. Not used to that. Some don’t appreciate this. They’ll focus on the negative.” 

Fifty percent of the people at the new triage shelter report having a substance abuse problem, 60 percent have a mental illness and 90 percent report some kind of disability, according to the city. Darzins says Wagner will likely require help for the rest of his life.

"To kind of make sure that when he does go home and he's somewhere where it’s not so loud, that the things that he hears don't kind of overwhelm him and he'll be more successful,” she said. “He'll be going into permanent supportive housing, where he'll have access to case management his whole life."

The residents at the center have been referred by city street teams and are there regardless of sobriety, possessions, pets or other typical restrictions.

Both the residents and the providers are learning patience. Christie Holderegger, also with Volunteers of America, says she’s learned that working with people “takes a little more time than we anticipated."

“Things are gonna work out. Not used to that. Some don’t appreciate this. They’ll focus on the negative.” 
- Cliff Wagner, triage shelter guest

According to Holderegger, the staff now knows it takes time for people to "defrost" after experiencing various traumas, such as being robbed, hunger, and sexual and physical assault.

“They have this cold exterior that kind of protects them from feeling some of the trauma they’ve experienced,” she said, adding that, “within the first few days, as they start to become comfortable and feel safe, they start to feel the trauma and kind of start to work through things. That's when they yell a little more or are more difficult to engage.”

Of the first 315 people to come through the program, half had never been to a shelter. One-hundred have moved on to some form of housing.

This includes 10 who are paying their own rent, 47 who are in subsidized permanent housing and 13 who are living permanently with friends or family. Twenty-three are in a shelter or living with friends or family temporarily. Seven are in a transitional-housing program.  

Holderegger says the bigger problem is a lack of permanent housing.

“We’re in a housing crisis,” she said. “So, even if we can get people into our shelters, they get stuck in the shelters because there’s no next step out."

Volunteers of America calls this pilot program a success and hopes the city and county of Sacramento will open more shelters like this, though on a smaller scale.

The monthly triage shelter costs have decreased the longer it's been open from about $450,000 per month at the beginning to about $334,000 a month now. That's a little less than $1100 per person per month or $37 dollars a day.

The facility was supposed to close in March, but private donations will keep it open until the end of August.

For those in the greatest need, the hands of the clock move quickly. Residents that want full-time assistance must complete paperwork for Social Security, and income and disability certifications before the shelter closes.

Darzins says regardless of the circumstances, each person who trusts her and comes in off the streets or off of the river will leave with something, even if it isn’t a permanent home.

“They will walk out of here with something tangible — access to behavioral health, a plan,” she said. “No one will walk out with nothing.”

Read more about the new homeless shelter here.

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