Wednesday, February 22, 2006

For homeless women in south county, coalition is last resort

Article Launched: 02/21/2006 12:00 AM PST
By TERRY VAU DELL - Staff Writer, Red Bluff Daily News

OROVILLE -- As she had many times before, the 24-year-old single mother found herself living on the streets, using drugs and sleeping at one house or another.

But this time was different.

While walking to her next crash pad, the young woman accepted a ride above Magalia.
She was driven to a remote site in the woods, brutally beaten and raped.
When David Burke got the call, he learned the young woman had escaped and, after hiding out in the hills for hours, had made her way to a neighboring house and then to a Paradise hospital.

Within hours, police arrested Shawn Stewart for the sexual assault. He is currently awaiting trial.

Using their limited funds, Burke, head of the Greater Oroville Homeless Coalition, bought the victim some food, cold medicine, a toothbrush and other necessities. He got her into a temporary safe house and is now putting together a drug-recovery plan for her.

Burke, a recovered methamphetamine addict who acts now as a local drug court liaison, had worked with the victim in the past and was optimistic when she graduated from the Butte County Proposition 36 drug treatment court a couple years ago.

"She found out you can't do recovery on your own," Burke said.

"She was torn up at first," Burke said of the brutal sexual assault. "She's doing just OK now."

While there are several resources to help homeless women and children in the Chico area, Burke's group is one of a very few in the southern part of the county.
Steve Terry, pastor of the Oroville Rescue Mission, said their records showed 1,770 women, 204 with children, stayed at the mission last year.

The average stay is about 30 days, but one woman has been there four months.
"This is a temporary shelter, but we allow them to stay longer in winter because of the cold," said Terry.

When it opened in the mid-1960s the mission was primarily populated by male hobos, jumping off the train that ran behind the premises.
But increasingly, Terry said, more homeless and impoverished women with children are coming to their doors.

A "quick count" census conducted by the Butte County Behavioral Health Department found 748 men, women and children living on the street on Jan. 31.

But that's an artificially low number. Many of the homeless could not be contacted, including "hundreds who couch surf" with friends for lack of money, according to Carol Zanon, vice-chair and secretary for the Oroville Homeless Coalition.

The grassroots organization, Zanon said, started about four and a half years ago as a "last resort" emergency measure to assist homeless families or those in danger of being evicted.

With the help of local churches, they have assisted about 30 Oroville-area women with children, getting some into apartments by paying their deposits, utilities and first month's rent.

Burke estimates there are about 100 more homeless families in the Oroville area in need of help.

Many of the parents "have drug issues and keep getting shuffled through the system until they lose their children," Burke said. "We're trying to make healthy babies and strong families."

The fledgling organization subsists almost entirely on private donations, much of which come from the group's annual fundraiser, which will take place in April.
Burke said the function couldn't come at a better time.

"We're down to our last $1,300," he noted.

A court liaison for Skyway House, Butte's largest nonprofit alcohol and drug rehabilitation center, Burke has dipped into his own pockets to help get some homeless women into safe houses and drug recovery.

"Most of them have a drug or alcohol dependency illness. If we can get mom stable in recovery, it takes away the insecurity of her child," he observed.
Burke has pulled strings to get several homeless women into treatment.

In some cases, he tapped Proposition 10 money, a state program that funds drug and alcohol treatment for women with children.

In addition to the rape victim, the homeless coalition this month helped provide emergency rent money and funds for substance abuse treatment to a handful of other women living on the street.

Theora, 40, had come out from Oklahoma City with her teenage daughter a couple years ago, lured by the promise of a good-paying job in the U.S. Forest Service.
Though she had two college degrees in forestry conservation and animal science technology, she wasn't able to find any work in Oroville.

"I had no problem finding drugs, though," she noted.

For six months, she lived in a tent in a field off Fifth Avenue, "eating out of trash cans and a Dumpster behind the AM-PM" market.

"Sometimes Pizza Hut would give us food when we knocked on the back door."
Though often hungry, she never lacked for drugs.

"Addicts would show up with drugs; I was a crack smoker. They would give me free smoke if I provided them with a tent to smoke it in," she said.

Understandably, local authorities frowned on the homeless squatters, and would sometimes cut down trees they used to tie down their tarpaulins, forcing them to move from one location to another, Theora said.

She knows all the local "camp" sites: near Bedrock Park along the Feather River, under the Thermalito Bridge, behind a few downtown stores and the open field off Fifth Avenue, where many of the homeless reside.

Ultimately her daughter was placed in foster care, and developed a drug addiction of her own.

Ironically, it was prison that helped turn Theora's life around.

Arrested while returning from a drug buy, she served two years in women's prison even though it was her first drug offense.

While there, she found religion and took advantage of the substance abuse counseling, which entitled her to drug treatment funding when she was paroled.

She's now living in one of Skyway House's "clean and sober living" houses on Bird Street in Oroville. Her daughter, now 18, is in residential drug treatment.
"I'm so happy my daughter is in treatment. She saw what it's done for me and how it changed my life," Theora said.

"There's so many people out there using and don't realize they're addicts ... I think it's awesome that there are people who do care," Theora said of the homeless coalition.

On Thursday, another resident at the Oroville sober living house, 18-year-old Danielle, landed her first job at a local motel.

Raped at age 17 and sleeping at other drug users' homes, she said she had finally had enough of the lifestyle.

"You get tired of being out in the rain," she noted.

Now engaged to be married, with the aid of her future sister-in-law, Danielle was able to "stay clean" for 30 days, qualifying for admittance to the Skyway House clean and sober living house in Oroville.

"I feel good, happy; I haven't felt that way in a long time," she said.

She said she primarily has Burke and the local homeless coalition to thank for her turnaround.

Her message to others living on the street and doing drugs is simple and direct: "While there is help out there, they have got to help themselves."

Terry, pastor of the faith-based Oroville Rescue Mission, agrees.

"There are resources out there to help the homeless, but for some reason many don't avail themselves of it," he said.

While he tries not to judge, It could be the fact that some don't want to abide by the mission's rules, which include a no-alcohol or drug-use policy.

Oroville police routinely hand out cards to homeless people that list local resources, including the Rescue Mission and the Oroville Homeless Coalition.
The mission, which also offers Christian services and drug counseling, tries to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers.

"There is an old proverb: 'You give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. You teach him how to fish and he'll eat the rest of his life,' " said Terry.

Zanon, a training supervisor for Butte County Children's Services, said there are many reasons families find themselves homeless.

Many women are fleeing domestic violence. Some working parents simply don't make enough to afford rent.

"How can someone who makes $1,300 a month pay $900 in rent, and provide for the other necessities of life for themselves and their family?" Zanon asked.

The organization's long-term goal is to raise enough money to establish a homeless center in Oroville, modeled after the Sabbath House, which provides a safe haven in Chico for women with children.

"What we envision is a shelter for women and children to live at, from where they can work to establish permanency, apply for grants, find a job, locate permanent housing, day care, etc.," noted Zanon.

In the meantime, the homeless coalition is "helping one family at a time in whatever way needed to help families find a clean, safe place to live and work from, maintain their dignity and above all, stay together," she added.

"Oroville police are very supportive. (District Attorney) Mike Ramsey also comes to our meetings," noted Burke.

However, without financial support from the local community, "it's very limited as to what we can do," he added.

Burke, a "proud graduate" of the Prop. 36 court drug treatment program and a married father of one, said he got involved in the homeless coalition to give something back to the community.

"When you're giving back to others in recovery, you keep what you've got," Burke observed.


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