PICTURED: Naomi and Sabrina Marrufo with their daughter shared their story of moving into and out of homelessness at the Dec. 7, dedication of the new permanent shelter managed by Spirit of Santa Paula. 

by Kimberly Rivers

krivers@timespublications.com

Today, Naomi and Sabrina Marrufo are living with their daughter in a Santa Paula apartment. They each work two part time jobs, and have a car. Sounds unremarkable, but about a year ago they found themselves on the street and separated from their daughter.

The Marrufos had been living in a room in a rented house, paying their rent directly to the house’s tenant. But that person was not paying the Marrufos’ rent to the homeowner, instead taking the rent under the table. Eventually the tenant was evicted and, without warning, the Marrufos were facing their first night on the street — through no fault of their own.

That is when they came to Spirit of Santa Paula (SSP) for help.

“They had been paying their rent . . . they found themselves on the street, this is a very common situation,“ explained Kay Wilson-Bolton, director of Spirit of Santa Paula. The organization provides services to those in need and has been operating a drop-in center at Wilson-Bolton’s real estate office, an emergency shelter at an area church, and providing hot meals out of a separate kitchen. SSP has access to grant funding for emergency rent help through the United Way Emergency Food and Shelter Program, but the program has specific rules. To receive assistance, those facing homelessness must have received a three-day notice, not have received rental assistance in the past year and be able to provide a W9 form from the landlord.

 “We receive about 10 requests a week for rental assistance . . . half from [people] renting a room, we can’t help them,” said Wilson-Bolton, because there is no rental contract and the landlord won’t provide a W9 form. “Things fall apart when a lot of us don’t do the right thing.”

With the Marrufos facing homelessness, Child Protective Services got involved. The couple was separated from their daughter and told that they had to meet several requirements over the next year in order to get custody back.

 “Their story is why I do this,” Wilson-Bolton said. “It’s a matter of loving them, caring about them and knowing who to bring around them; being their mother, their friend, their aunt, wrapped into one. That is what it takes to get this done.”

A year later, the Marrufos have their daughter back — and a home. Sabrina shared their story at the dedication of the new SSP-managed shelter being called Harvard. “We wanted something catchy, and when they [are rehomed] we will say they graduated from Harvard,” said Wilson-Bolton with a smile.

Richard’s House and Naomi’s Kitchen

On Christmas Eve in 2008, Wilson-Bolton in her role as chaplain with the Ventura County Fire Department responded to a call about a homeless man found dead at a Santa Paula church. The man’s name was Richard.

“I have lived for 43 years in Santa Paula and didn’t know we had homeless people. That [night] was the beginning of my journey,” she said. Two weeks after Richard’s death, Wilson-Bolton and other local residents served a free hot meal to 47 needy people in Santa Paula. “I’ll never forget watching them walk toward us; we wondered if anybody would come. That was the progression of our understanding and our sympathy.” The sleeping room area of the shelter is called “Richard’s House” in honor of his memory.

The shelter was dedicated on Friday, Dec. 7, 2019, to a standing-room-only crowd in a building that previously housed a bar. “It was stunning. I was not expecting to see [the] interest. With so much in the news, homelessness and addiction . . . so many sad things are affecting families in some way. It’s hard to find someone who is not affected by these issues.”

While SSP has been serving the community since 2002, the opening of Richard’s House is allowing the organization to consolidate many services at one location. The shelter’s kitchen is named Naomi’s Kitchen, for local Santa Paula resident Naomi Pitcairn, who recently bought the building in foreclosure and gave it to the organization for 30 years rent free. “We wanted to honor the people who made it possible.”

Wilson-Bolton said that there has been a shift since she has been working with homeless people. “I think the public is getting kinder.” She said when she started this work 11 years ago, she would hear “nothing but ‘tell them to get a job.’ Those days are kind of over.”

Over the past week, with the last rain storm looming, the community came together to temporarily open a shelter at the Methodist Church because the opening of Richard’s House was delayed a few days due to inspection issues. The shelter hosted guests overnight for the first time on Sunday, Dec. 8, officially adding 49 beds to the current 110 available in other shelters around the county.

“We are very kind but very firm,” Wilson-Bolton said regarding rules and procedures at the shelter. All guests have to sign the rules, and “if they don’t like them they can find somewhere else to go.” The emphasis is on making the shelter safe for everyone. Rules include no smoking and having “a good attitude . . . and they can’t get down to their skivvies when they go to bed.” She explained sometimes people think they are in a hotel room, but the large group room does not allow for much privacy.

The shelter is staffed by both paid employees and volunteers. Wilson-Bolton is a volunteer. “I’m here because I want to be, we have a lot of volunteer helpers. Some of the volunteers and employees are former recipients of our services.”

On Sunday afternoon, before the first night at the new shelter, final preparations were underway. A local man had donated 10 military grade bunkbeds and Wilson-Bolton was heading out to buy mattresses. “Moving into a new site is like moving into a new house: It is exciting but you’re wondering where all your stuff is. And I’m trying not to make everyone crazy with my desire for organization.” Wilson-Bolton chuckled. “I try to make it fun. I can’t stand disorganization, but we pull it together because we have to and people depend on us.”

Along with the nightly shelter, laundry services are available every Friday and a hot meal for anyone in need is served every Wednesday at the First Presbyterian Church.“On a normal night we serve 600 meals.” During Thanksgiving this year, over 1,000 people were served.

Kay Wilson Bolton at the shelter with two helpers prepping dinner on Sunday, Dec. 9. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

SSP partners with local food pantries and is involved with food rescue, collecting 40,000 pounds of food monthly that would otherwise be discarded. The organization also works closely with Ventura County Behavioral Health. SSP is part of the countywide coordinated entry continuum of care, all geared toward finding housing and services for those in need.

Rainbow of services

“Just building units to put people in is not going to [solve homelessness],” Wilson-Bolton said, noting that “a rainbow of services” is needed and taxpayers need to understand the current costs of not properly funding effective efforts. “In 2018, three individuals cost the Ventura County healthcare system $7 million dollars. One of those people went to the emergency room 182 times in one year.” In her view, if that $7 million was used to house and provide $500 per month in managed care to those same three people, “we could house them for 114 years. Why wouldn’t taxpayers look at this problem differently?”

She said sometimes she hears a “myth” that when you provide services to the homeless it will draw people from elsewhere. “It’s a story people love to tell. Well, it’s a myth and I can prove it,” she said, recalling that last year at emergency shelter locations, there was a high of 32 people and a low of 7. “They are not coming in droves.”

Wilson-Bolton told one story of a homeless man who made his way to Santa Paula from Lancaster to be near the Todd Road jail when his girlfriend was released. “He was gone in two days. We gotta be nice about this . . . provide grace to people in a tight space. I don’t want to just provide shelter, I want to help give them a normal life. You can’t shelter your way out of homelessness.”

Part of the rainbow of services has to include treatment for mental illness. She noted that it’s probably a two-way street between mental illness and homelessness — each leading to and contributing to the other. Those working to rehouse the homeless have to be able to determine proper care, whether the person can work or if they have an illness that prevents them from working.

As for obstacles to housing everyone, “Money is number one . . .  two is the process.” She credited help from Mark Lorenzen, chief with the Ventura County Fire Department, for helping SSP move through the permitting process for the new shelter. The new building had a lot of work done after a structure fire in 2013. So the heating, air conditioning, electrical and kitchen upgrades had already been done.

Shelters need to be staffed as well. There are three SSP team members at the shelter each night, scheduled to sleep in shifts. “But you don’t really sleep. One eye open all the time,” Wilson-Bolton explained. “Either folks have bad habits, or are unhappy. They don’t want to be in the shelter but are grateful they are. There are many complex personality issues in the room at the same time. Our goal is just to love them, stay with them, encourage them and when they fall, get them back up.” SSP connects those who need greater support with agencies in the county that do the “heavy lifting” and rehousing.

“In the past two years I’ve seen an attitude change in my own community,” said Wilson-Bolton. “Half appreciate what we do, half don’t’ understand it, don’t think it necessary. You wouldn’t believe the calls I get in a week. Mothers with a baby in a room in a hotel, the boyfriend who has left and they don’t have any money. Just a sign of the times, I’m afraid. The need is huge.”

Wilson-Bolton works in real estate and is a property manager. “A $100 rent increase can make the difference on whether [tenants] can pay utilities . . . and everything begins to fall.” She said she doesn’t believe that folks are choosing homelessness. “In this country, when so many are prospering, a train is pulling in the opposite direction, pulling with it people into poverty.”

A one-day count in January 2019 found 1,669 homeless people in Ventura County, a 28.5 percent increase from 2018. 2017 health records in the county show that over 14,000 people who received care met the federal definition of homeless, with over 4,400 being literally homeless.

Wilson-Bolton pointed to the Marrufo family’s story of moving out of homelessness. “There is no fairy dust, no magic wand . . .  just one at a time. Slow work takes time.”

Spirit of Santa Paula’s permanent shelter laundry (Friday morning) and drop-in services are now all provided at 1498 E. Harvard Blvd., Santa Paula. The Wednesday hot meal is served at the First Presbyterian Church, 121 Davis St., Santa Paula. The mobile Shower Pod is at El Buen Pastor Church, 1029 E. Santa Paula St. Se habla Espanol, call Lupe Servin at 805-427-4750. For other services and more information, call 805-340-5025 or visit www.spiritofsantapaula.org.