Couple rebuilds life in ‘House of Peace’

February 6, 2012

Nonprofit offers unique transitional living space in Salians

By Melissa Flores, California Health Report

Martha Torres and Mario Pinedo are proud to show the one-room living space they share upstairs on Soledad Street in Salinas. The room is a tight fit for a queen-size bed the couple shares, as well as a couple of dressers and other possessions. The bed is covered with a blue comforter and the walls are decorated with framed photographs including scenes of the ocean. It is the first stable place the couple has had to call home in years.

Torres and Pinedo moved into the small room in May last year. It was a big step for the couple, who met while living on the streets of Salinas in 2009. They both had been homeless for years when they applied to live in the House of Peace, a unique transitional living opportunity run by the Franciscan Workers of Junipero Serra, a nonprofit.

The House of Peace opened a year ago and has 13 residents as well as four house coordinators who live together in a community. To be accepted into the home, residents who are formerly homeless have to volunteer five days a week for about 20 hours a week. Residents have to pass a drug test to show that they are not using, complete a background check that looks for sexually-related crimes and they agree to follow the house rules peacefully. When a room opens up, the residents vote on which applicants to accept into their community.

In Monterey County, there are 3,472 people who experience homelessness annually. Nearly two-thirds are male and almost half are between the ages of 31-50.

According to census numbers, 22 percent of those are chronically homeless and 43 percent are homeless for the first time.

The numbers are especially visible on Soledad Street.

“This was the place to find the most disenfranchised people,” said Jill Allen, the development director for the Franciscan Workers. “When they were developing the Old Town (downtown Salians) area, a lot of (homeless) were wandering the streets. They were encouraged to move away.”

Allen is one of dozens of representatives from government and nonprofit agencies in Monterey and San Benito County who worked together to develop a 10 year plan to end homelessness for the region’s Continuum of Care. The Continuum of Care is a group of agencies that work together to address homelessness and it is a requirement for many types of federal grants that address emergency and affordable housing issues.

One of the key shifts in the 10 year plan is a focus on housing first – it is a theory that offering stable housing to homeless residents without any requirements such as getting sober or dealing with mental illness issues. The goal is to get people into a stable environment and then offer access to services such as substance abuse or mental health counseling.
While Allen’s agency does not apply for federal grants, she said that they work with other agencies to connect their clients with services.

Dorothy’s Kitchen began its work 30 years ago when a group of volunteers brought egg salad sandwiches down to the area. The outreach grew to include daily meals, an evening emergency shelter for women known as Women Alive!, a day shelter and a once-a-week medical clinic.

Torres and Pinedo are open about their lives on the street. Torres said she was a crystal meth addict who had been using since 2000 and “sold her body” to pay for drugs. Pinedo said he was molested by his mother as a child, suffers nightmares from his time serving in the Vietnam War and is an alcoholic. Torres met Pinedo in 2009 and he encouraged her to stop using meth.

“After three days, he said I had to pick between the pipe or his friendship,” she said.

Torres decided to try to clean up and the two stayed together – sleeping wherever they could find shelter, including in a large barbecue pit behind a VFW building one summer.

Pinedo wrangled up money to take Torres to breakfast at Denny’s. One morning Torres offered to take Pinedo to breakfast and the couple showed up at Dorothy’s Kitchen. They began volunteering there and built a rapport with the staff.

Pinedo has been sober for more than 117 days, he said on a Friday morning in January. One of the reasons Pinedo decided to stop drinking is that a doctor checked him and found that he had liver damage. They both talk about struggling with their addictions, but for the first time in a long time they see some hope for the future.

“I feel proud. Not just because I stopped drinking,” Pinedo said, of his journey since moving into the House of Peace. “About two years ago I hated women. (Martha) is the first relationship I’ve had. Now I feel good, respected. They taught me that.”

Torres wants to learn more about how to use computers. Pinedo wants to become a pastry chef and decorate wedding cakes. He brags about his pineapple upside down cake. Pinedo and Torres also want to be role models to the people they lived with on the streets.

“People live here,” Allen said, of the blighted neighborhood. “People actually think of this as their residence.”

Patricia Bravo, the program director of the emergency women’s shelter, said that many of the clients have mental illness, substance abuse or a combination of both problems. The shelter houses 16 cots on most nights. During the day, the cots are placed in a shed and chairs are brought out for the day room, where homeless men and women can watch TV or socialize.

“We do have ladies who have been here for years,” Bravo said, adding that most have depression. “Just to be homeless, you stop living normally.”

Even with a diagnosis, mental illness can be hard for homeless residents to manage.
“Some have psychiatric problems that in good times they can manage,” Allen said. “In bad times they can’t. They are out of money and after couch surfing, they become vulnerable.”

The weekly clinic offered at Dorothy’s Place deals with a wide variety of ailments from blisters to staph infections to pulmonary issues such as emphysema and asthma.

“They are the least likely to take care of themselves,” said Allen, one of several staff members who used the term survival mode to describe the way that people live on the streets.

In addition to the weekly clinic at Dorothy’s Place, Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas brings its mobile clinic to Soledad Street on Fridays, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Allen said the mobile clinic offers screenings, but not treatment.

Those who live in the House of Peace may fair better when it comes to treatment.

Brittany English is the program director for the House of Peace. She said that the community serves as a transitional living space but there is no timeline for when residents need to move out.

English explained that an emergency shelter lacks a lot of security and privacy.

“I say when they come up here, they can take a deep breath,” she said, noting that with stable housing residents can deal with health issues, reconnecting with family or thinking about the future. “Two people finally got their footing together to reconnect with family. It’s about whatever is thriving for them…homelessness is really about family-lessness.”

Since opening up, two residents reconnected with family and returned home.

There are residents who have health problems, though lack of health coverage can make it hard for them to manage. One woman living in the house has thyroid disease that she is managing well. Another man has advanced hepatitis C. English works with all the clients to file for disability or other benefits for which they might qualify and encourages them to take advantage of the medical clinics. But she said it is up to them to come up with their own plan for what they want to do.

“We are trying to make it better for ourselves,” Torres said. “We want to show people we could do it. They can see we are doing it and they can get better, too.”

Melissa Flores is a correspondent for the California Health Report at www.healthycal.org.

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