• Funds for counselor who gives hope to lost youths has been cut

    by Erika Fiske

    Like so many in America today, Gary Thompson’s life is uncertain. Last week the counselor learned that an annual federal grant he’s counted on for years was denied. Now the Street Outreach Program at A Safe Place is reaching out to Monterey and surrounding communities for help, so people such as Thompson can continue to work with more than 600 homeless youths a year who walk through the center’s doors.

    This outreach program, funded by federal grants for the past 13 years, was recently denied because the local Safe Place provides no place for the many homeless youths to sleep. Every night kids can be seen sleeping on hillsides by Monterey, on beaches, at friends’ homes, in cars and garages, wooded areas, parks and abandoned buildings, or wherever they can lie down for a few hours. Just at a time when numbers of youths going homeless are on the rise in a poor economy, help could disappear—unless the community cares enough to act.

    During the day, youths 21 years of age and under stop by at Safe Place for something to eat, a change of clothes, shoes, computer use, sleeping bags or tents, counseling and help getting a job, obtaining food stamps, or enrolling in school, among other things. The grant and a much smaller matching fund give the youth program about $100,000 a year.

    The first street outreach program to offer housing to youths was in Kentucky, where Safe Place combined with the YMCA, something that could be considered locally, according to Thompson. Such a 24-hour-a-day facility is costly and would benefit from collaboration of the Y and Safe Place.

    What Thompson would bring to such a joint venture is first-hand experience. The 48-year-old counselor has been through about anything a homeless youth might throw at a counselor. In fact, he can hardly wait for a youth to say, “But you don’t know what it’s like.” With those words, Gary relates his own story—a life of drugs, pain and homelessness. That’s when young people begin to listen. Thompson has his office on the second floor of Safe Place, an adobe building at Cortes and Pearl Steets in Monterey, where he keeps drawers full of supplies and snacks that he and other counselors deliver to runaway and homeless youths in the area. Besides fruit drinks and granola bars, the kids get some necessities and information on Safe Place, a Community Human Services (CHS) program offering street outreach and survival aid to counseling and family reunification.

    A Wasted Life of Drugs and Drink

    There was a time when Gary himself needed help with life. But he traveled a long, hard road before he reached a place where he could say, “Enough,” and finally change. “The catalyst for my addiction was my father’s death when I was 15,” Gary said. Without Dad around, Gary began to “test the waters” with parties and wild behavior. His mother tried to stop all this, but Gary’s answer was to leave home.

    “For the next 25 years, I stayed drunk. I went from one party to the next. I had seven DUIs. I was in and out of jail. I was locked up for eight to nine years,” he said. About a year after his release from jail, Gary had a child with a woman and became the perfect father, with his world revolving around the girl. By the time his daughter reached three years of age, her mother decided to leave.

    “I was destroyed. I started drinking again,” Gary said. Although he had joint custody, the mother stopped cooperating and kept the child home. Gary went to pieces, drinking a lot, unable to face his life with all its failures. Then he discovered heroin.

    “The first time I tried heroin, everything went away,” he said, referring to all the bad memories. But as he grew addicted, things got worse. “I moved into Chinatown in Salinas and lived on the tracks. I was using three to five grams of heroin a day. I didn’t want to live. I saw no way out.”

    One day he was in the back of a van smoking when a police officer stuck his head in the door. “I smiled,” Gary said, realizing it was all over. He wound up in Genesis House for 10 months and had to face his past, 25 years of never keeping a job, never owning a home, driving around with a revoked license, loaded, and going from party to party.

    “I never dealt with the death of my father and the loss of my daughter,” he said. “It was a lot of emotional trauma.”

    A year after completing the program at Genesis, Gary was offered a job there, to be part of the relief staff. After falling down a flight of stairs, he went back to school to earn his GED at the age of 34 and then an associate’s degree from Monterey Peninsula College. When he was offered the job at Safe Place, Gary jumped at the opportunity to work with young people.

    Many Sad Stories

    There is no shortage of youths needing help locally. According to CHS, there are probably 650 or more young people living on the streets of Monterey Peninsula. Many of these youths never seek help from CHS, which also provides a small number of beds in a temporary shelter and in transitional housing. There young people are helped to reunite with families or find other homes. CHS programs dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues also are available, and treat more than 3,000 people a year.

    As Gary discussed his work at Safe Place, a visitor aged 24, and too old for services, spoke with Gary about housing. The tall, thin man was living in a tent at Veteran’s Park with his girlfriend. Major health issues were making it difficult for him to get a start in life, as he was approaching a forth surgery for cancer—and the removal of another section of his intestines.

    “He’s lost a lot of weight,” Gary said. “Six months ago he was around 215 pounds.”

    Unfortunately, Gary was unable to recommend a place in the Monterey area for this homeless couple. “I’m referring him to the Watsonville shelter,” Gary said. “It’s first come, first serve there. Sometimes the first five are guaranteed a bed every night, if they help out at the shelter.”

    The young man and his girlfriend would have to stay in separate shelters, but could eat meals together, Gary said. The young man wasn’t interested in going on disability, fearing it would prevent him from returning to computer work.

    There are many sad stories that walk through the doors of Safe Place. With the weak economy, more youths have been seeking help over the past two years, and there’s a rise in methadone and heroin use among the young, according to staff.

    One young man from the Northwest became homeless when his mother asked him to leave. While the youth was struggling with a vacuum cleaner one day, his mother yelled, “Get out of the house, you’re useless.” He did just that, for two years. When he showed up at Safe Place in Monterey, he was given food, clothes, a shower and kindness. Finally, he decided to go home.

    One happy ending involved a girl who came to Safe Place at the age of 12. “Her mother was a single parent with two children and had a drug and alcohol problem,” Gary said, adding that sometimes it’s safer on the streets than in some homes.

    “She made an agreement with her mother. She was not running away, she was just not coming home.” Gary said. As she grew older, the young woman decided to escape homelessness. With the help of counselors, she enrolled in college, got a job and paid a friend to let her sleep on her couch. Now 18, she’s on her way to realizing her dreams.

    More Beds Needed

    Gary has worked for Community Human Services for eight years, and at Safe Place specifically for one year. On the building is a national emblem for Safe Place, which lets youths from anywhere in the country know the building is a place to find help. Some businesses also carry the emblem, such as Acme Coffee, and in certain cities, the bus system will carry the emblem.”

    If a youth is found in crisis, there are two Safe Place 21-day foster homes in Pacific Grove and Carmel for such situations, where there are attempts at reunification or finding someplace else for youths to live. Transitional housing (Safe Passage) is available to older homeless youths (18 to 21 years of age) in a remodeled bungalow that houses six young adults for 18 to 24 months, giving help with education goals, finding work and finding housing. There’s a 24-hour crisis line, 831-241-0914, as well.

    The young people given beds in these temporary foster homes and transitional housing are a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of youths who seek help from street outreach at Safe Place each year—or just a friendly ear to listen to their problems. Without community support, even that could disappear.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on November 2, 2012

    Topics: Homeless Chronicles

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