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Safe Space in Chico secures winter shelter intake center location

Many unhoused residents in Chico, Calif. remain unsheltered as winter approaches. Encampment on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway on Nov. 15, 2023.
Alec Stutson
Many unhoused residents in Chico, Calif. remain unsheltered as winter approaches. Encampment on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway on Nov. 15, 2023.

Safe Space in Chico is gearing up to open its winter shelter program. The nonprofit provides overnight shelter to unhoused individuals from December to March with the help of a rotating group of churches who donate spaces for several weeks at a time.

NSPR’s Ava Norgrove recently spoke with Safe Space Program Coordinator, Lauren Kennedy, about the shelter and what is still needed for Chico’s unhoused residents during the city’s coldest months.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

On Safe Space’s history

This is our 10th year of Safe Space. It was the first project of what turned into the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT). It started with the very simple goal of making sure that people didn't have to sleep outside because that's dangerous, and it felt like in 21st-century California, we shouldn't have people sleeping on the streets if there were building spaces for them available.

We have grown so much, but more or less, it's the same model. Safe Space is Chico's lowest barrier shelter, which means that we've reduced as many barriers as we can to accessing shelters. We serve a lot of folks who can't or won't access other shelters in Chico. A lot of medically vulnerable people, more and more seniors every year. Now we have staff, but until a year or two ago, Safe Space was 100% volunteer run. We'd have anywhere between 400 to 700 volunteers in various roles that kept it going.

On how the shelter operates

How it works for guests is they check in to the central intake center. That stays the same throughout the season, December through March. That's where we get folks checked in, figure out who the guests list is for the night, store people's property on a truck and arrange transportation to wherever the shelter is that we rely on for the actual shelter because we don't have a building. Our awesome partners who are all churches at this point, provide shelter for a week or two in spaces that they have available. So people check in at intake, get registered, and we give transportation for them and their stuff over to the shelter for the night.

There we have another amazing group of volunteers who have made a meal for 50 to 70 people. Guests and volunteers can have some food, hang out a little bit, access their bedding, and have a safe place to sleep for the night. The next morning, we give transportation back.

It's not glamorous, but it's safe and it's warm. Every guest gets a sleeping mat. It's all in one room, so it's congregate. We don't allow guests to bring in their own bedding. But for everybody, you do get your own bedding bag, which has a couple of clean sheets and a warm blanket. And so those bags get labeled. Guests have that for the week, that's theirs. And then at the end of the week, those get dropped off, laundry gets done. And then we start it again the next week, you get your own clean bedding bag for your spot.

Our cap is based on the space available at whatever church we're staying at and is around 50 to 70 people. It's one church at a time for one to two weeks. We really try to keep those weeks together if it's multiple weeks because it is intensive to move the shelter.

On what it costs to run Safe Space

We get a little bit of money from the city of Chico, but largely our funding comes from the community. In recent years, we've been able to access some county money for emergency services that comes from the state. But we have a variety of funding sources and again, largely community-based.

I think it's like $25 what it costs us per night to have someone stay at Safe Space, which is pretty low. For $1,000 you can shelter everyone for the night. That's our budget. That's what it costs to keep Safe Space open. For $300 you can pay for our laundry for the week. For $75 you can gas up “Marge,” our shuttle bus, for the week. We rely a lot on community funds.

On the need for more shelter in the winter in Chico

There are no warming centers that I know of. I know in the past the city of Chico has opened warming centers. We have a need for more effective shelter, and housing. I feel like those centers were underutilized. I think they're very expensive for the city to run. Housing and shelter that's more permanent is a more cost-effective use, more cost-effective solution.

It costs a lot to be in emergency mode all the time, and we're not meeting the need. We just lost another person on the streets last week. He had been a Safe Space guest before, he's volunteered with a lot of other shelter organizations and had been at the Pallet shelter, lost his housing there and then passed away on the streets. We're still not meeting the need. We need easily accessible shelter services, especially in the wintertime.

Dec. 17 is going to be the first day Safe Space is open. That first week is usually the only time when we're below max capacity.

Some people have more access to housing or they can stay with family during the holidays, and word has not gotten out. But after that first week, we're pretty much at capacity for the rest of the season. The absolute worst part of Safe Space is anytime we have to drop down in numbers. We have a lot of people who need our services in the winter.

On finding an intake center

We can't run a shelter without intake. In order to be accessible we have to have a central location, but we don't have shelter that's central. So we need an intake spot where people can show up regularly and get there easily.

In the past, we've been in places that were options, but they have a lot of stairs and guests couldn't access them. We have a lot of mobility issues and disabilities for guests. That was a bit of a panic button for me. When we put the word out, we got so much response, so many businesses, so many community members, people who wanted to just help do the legwork of reaching out. So I feel pretty amazed and grateful for that response. And we have a business owner downtown who's stepped up. I think it's going to be a great location, I think it's gonna work great for the neighborhood. I think it's gonna work great for our guests. I think getting there would be a lot of fun for volunteers. So we truly appreciate the support and we'll have more details coming soon.

On the need for volunteers

We are looking for volunteers. It's really fun to volunteer for Safe Space. We have a lot of volunteers that come back every year. We depend on about 400 volunteers, not counting food. Our volunteer signup just went live, you can access it through our website or through our social media. It's on SignUpGenius. All the shifts are outlined.

We always have trained volunteers, core volunteers in each position, and usually staff. So, if you're hesitant about volunteering it's really easy. You just show up and you get an awesome neon green vest. There are great people around who will tell you what to do. Make it really easy for you. You always get supported. It's just for a couple of hours each shift.

There are lots of ways to volunteer. There's the shelter itself, which is very chill. We also need volunteers at our intake center. It can be a little more activity but also a very fun place to volunteer again. It's just for a couple of hours to help people get checked in and help them store their stuff.

We need laundry volunteers.We do so much laundry we wash bedding for all those folks every week. Our laundry team is a blast. We also need help moving in and moving out every time we change shelter, if you'd like to get in there and lift some heavy stuff. We make a lot of meals. Again, we have teams that come back year after year. But we still need new food providers. So that can be another really fun way to volunteer. We have a food coordinator, and we have some staff members who can help.

So if you want to help, and you are hesitant to volunteer, it's easy and there's a lot of support for it.

Ava is NSPR’s Morning Edition anchor and reporter. They previously worked on NPR’s Weekend Edition and NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered broadcasts and produced weekly national news stories focused on contextualizing national issues for individual communities. They love NorCal and spending time outdoors.