When you meet Alison Sanchez, assistant program manager at the Fullerton Armory Emergency Shelter, you would never know that she once called the shelter home.
She was living as an addict on the streets until seven years ago, when she was brought to the shelter. She has been in recovery ever since and has worked there for six years.
“I had a friend that worked here and he got me into it,” Sanchez said. “It turned out to be exactly what I was supposed to do, so I stayed.”
There are 4,319 homeless people in Orange County. Of those, 2,118 were counted in shelters, according to federal Housing and Urban Development data.
Mercy House Living Centers operates two emergency shelters in Orange County out of National Guard Armories in Santa Ana and Fullerton.
The Santa Ana-based nonprofit also provides assistance for the homeless in Orange County through transitional housing, permanent housing and support services.
The Santa Ana shelter houses “families with minor children only” and can hold 400 people, while the Fullerton shelter houses “adult clients only” and has a maximum capacity of 200.
Mercy House shelters helped place 128 men, women and children into permanent housing, according to data collected by the nonprofit for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. Stories like Sanchez’s are not uncommon.
“I think that those people, the people we can hire who have personal experience with being homeless or a family member who was homeless, I think they are assets to us,” Sanchez said.
Michelle Riggan, 28, has been a program coordinator for Mercy House for over a year. Like Sanchez, she was homeless once. She lived in her car for four years.
After falling into partying and drugs in high school and college, Riggan’s parents kicked her out of the house. While homeless, she became an alcoholic.
“I definitely thought that was going to be me for the rest of my life,” Riggan said. “That’s just who I was. I just accepted it, and it just becomes a part of your identity. You don’t see that there’s the possibility for something better because it’s all you know, all you see.”
After getting a DUI, she was given the choice to either spend two weeks in jail or take a 48-day “Teen Challenge” Christian drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.
She chose to get clean, and after being told about Mercy House through a friend, she applied to work there.
“I really relate to the people that come, and when they start complaining about something, I know. I’ve been there,” Riggan said. “Really being there for someone, that’s what I love.”
The La Palma Check-in Center
Riggan primarily works at the La Palma Check-in Center at La Palma Park in Anaheim. The Mercy House-operated center is open year-round seven days a week, with shifts from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
During those hours, around 170 people can store or check out their belongings from the center said Marte Juarez, an Emergency Services Outreach coordinator for Mercy House. Juarez has been working with Mercy House since he graduated high school in 2015 and volunteered with the nonprofit since he was in junior high.
“I’m in emergency services, which essentially just means I work hand in hand with the clients,” Juarez said. “I work one-on-one with them.”
People who want to make use of the storage system are given up to three mid-sized plastic bins and can eventually upgrade to one big, wheeled and dark grey trash pail.
Their belongings are loaded into two beige shipping containers, one of which also serves as an office space for the workers at the center.
In order to keep their belongings stored, they need to check in weekly. If they don’t check in for over a month, their belongings are discarded.
Larry Stroup, 53, has been using a trash pail at the center to store his clothes for four months after a third-strike DUI put him in jail for over a decade.
Born and raised in Fullerton, Stroup worked as a seafood cook at a restaurant in Buena Park. However, he has not been able to find work since his release.
“It’s hard to find a job when you’re an ex-con,” Stroup said.
When Stroup’s belongings are not stored at the center, he carries them around in a sack alongside his fishing pole.
“Someone gave me that,” Stroup said of the pole. “I wish I could go fishing a lot, but I can’t afford it.”
Food is one of the other services the Check-in Center offers that Stroup and other clients make use of. Mercy House does not provide the food, but rather other organizations who bring food to the center at set times in the month.
People can sit and enjoy their meals at a spread of picnic benches underneath tents next to the two shipping containers.
One group that delivers food is Loving Others in Truth 318, or LOT318, a Placentia organization that gathers food to bring from local restaurants.
LOT318 director Letty Gali said the organization has partnered with Mercy House for the last five years to bring meals to the center every first and third Wednesday of the month.
“We want them to realize they are not forgotten,” Gali said. “We all have a story, and I feel like this is what we were called to do, come and help meet some of those needs that they have.”
Gali hopes to convey to the clients at the Check-in Center that they can achieve and accomplish a lot if they work hard and feel they have a purpose in the world. They are thankful for what they can get, she said.
“(LOT318) is one of the better ones,” Stroup said. “They present a decent meal, nice and warm, wide variety on the food chain, beverages … That’s very good feeding right there.”
Besides storage and food, the center also has a charging station for clients’ electronics and administers questionnaires to interested individuals who may qualify for permanent supportive housing with Mercy House.
One of the most important services the center provides is transit to the Fullerton Armory Emergency Shelter when it’s open. At the end of the afternoon shifts, buses bring homeless individuals who use the center’s services, as well as those who do not, to the shelter so they have a place to spend the night.
The Fullerton Armory Emergency Shelter
When people take the buses from the La Palma Check-in Center, they have priority admission to the Fullerton shelter. The shelter runs on a first-come-first-serve basis and opens at 7 p.m.
“The reason for that is to try and persuade people to take the bus to alleviate loitering around the area of the shelter,” Sanchez said. “There are some people who are going to just walk up no matter what, and we allow walk-ups of course, but I do think it helps.”
The shelter, housed at the National Guard Armory on Brookhurst Street and Valencia Drive, provides mats to sleep on, blankets, meals, showers and towels for up to 200 people a night.
Sleeping arrangements in the shelter are divided by gender.
“We definitely have more men than women so we try to section off the back of the women’s area so we can put men that don’t fit on the other side. I think that’s good for the couples that we have here,” Sanchez said. “We have some couples who are physically dependent on their significant other … It is helpful for them.”
Most of the workers at the shelter are volunteers, and Sanchez said they aim to have around 15 a night.
“We have a really awesome staff that just steps up and takes care of things when we don’t have volunteers,” Sanchez said.
The hired staff members receive background checks, are tested for tuberculosis and receive about two weeks of sensitivity training to learn how to deal with a different population staying together in one place.
One of the more challenging things for workers at the shelter to deal with is behavioral problems, like arguments that spring up when people roll into each other while they are sleeping, Sanchez said.
“It’s just a matter of trying to manage their behavior so as long as we can try and speak with them and calm them down, maybe move them away from the person they are having an issue with,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said that staff is limited for managing the behaviors of everyone there.
“We only have four or five members a night for 200 people,” Sanchez said. “Our primary goal is setting up the armory, making sure that everyone gets fed and showered and safe.”
While the shelter does not have a psychologist or other mental-health experts on staff, part of the training workers have to go through involves working with representatives from health-care agencies. Some agencies come to the shelter to provide services.
“We have the Mental Health Association (MHA) come and try to link people into mental-health services. We have social services agencies and health-care agencies in Orange County that also come in,” Sanchez said.
Once a week, the nonprofit CareerWise also comes to the shelter to help individuals put together a resume and search for jobs.
At night, clients staying in the shelter receive an evening meal. In the mornings, the shelter provides breakfast—usually “coffee, bagels, muffins, fruits and sometimes oatmeal,” Sanchez said.
The homeless who spend the night have to leave the shelter at 6 a.m. A bus will be there to pick them up and take them back to the La Palma Check-in Center if they want.
The 6 a.m. departure time does not work for everybody.
One mother of four used to sleep at the Fullerton shelter with a friend whose mother was paralyzed.
“They were really nice. They’re very helpful, and I felt safe, but it was difficult getting up at six,” she said. “When I was there, I was with a friend of mine and his mom was paralyzed, so getting her up and down into bathrooms … It was difficult.”
The women, who became homeless in 2011 due to domestic violence, now live outside the Santa Ana Civic Center.
Probably the biggest problem facing the armory system is that the armory shelters are not open year-round. The Mercy House OC Armory Emergency Shelters are seasonal, usually open from November to April.
Cynthia Larson, who has visited the La Palma Check-in Center every day since it opened three years ago, said when the Fullerton shelter closes for the season, she “hits the dusty trail” and usually winds up camping out by freeways.
In the past, Larson traveled across the United States in just over 2 months and landed a job at a diner in Florida. After the diner closed, Larson moved back to California and stayed with her daughter when other living arrangements fell through.
She has been homeless for five years, unable to find work due to poor health and said the hardest part of being homeless is adjusting to changing conditions.
“My pappy told me a long time ago that only the strongest survive,” Larson said. “I don’t have a choice. I’m stuck with this. This is reality.”
Riggan said she has no idea where the homeless go when it is not armory season.
She described the system as being “broken,” and feels there needs to be more of a collaborative focus on helping people become better equipped for a new lifestyle living off the streets rather than just looking for more “success stories” to tell.
“It’s really hard to try and get help. There’s a lot of people helping, but not a lot of people, I think, have seen it though,” Riggan said. “The collaboration among organizations needs to be a lot stronger.”
The 2016 Orange County Executive Office Assessment of Homeless Services in Orange County came to the same conclusion. It found that countywide resource coordination is fragmented and not easily navigated by those experiencing homelessness.
“Orange County has a large and diverse population, where services, housing availability and affordability and other resource barriers exist due to lack of regional and localized coordination,” according the Assessment.