As a bruise-blue sky settled over Napa and the temperature slid below freezing, two dozen men and women sought a place to lay their heads for the night.
They streamed into a fenced-in meeting hall at the Napa Valley Expo on a recent Thursday evening, carrying sleeping bags, backpacks and at least one skateboard. A few smelled faintly of alcohol; while the shelter bans carrying alcohol and drugs into the building, it remains a “wet” facility where the homeless can enter first and dry out later.
Inside were the barest essentials of a shelter — plain beige walls, a coffee pot, a refrigerator for visitors to store whatever food they brought in. Arranged like a grid on the concrete floor were 50 cots where some of the visitors, exhausted after a chilly day on foot, drifted into sleep within minutes.
Nearly all those who had passed through the doors of the Emergency Winter Shelter were men, but one of them had not come alone.
“It’s a nice warm spot. Thank God for the community,” said Robert Simpson, a 49-year-old Wyoming and Texas native who has called Napa home for the past decade. He sat at a group of tables in one corner near a handful of men focused on the action movie playing on a nearby television, but Simpson’s attention was on the redheaded, glasses-wearing companion whose hand he held, her mood resilient despite where they found themselves.
“Way better than sleeping under the bridge,” said Laura, his girlfriend of two and a half years, remembering a mid-December morning spent waiting for her creaking joints to loosen up after a night under a Napa River span. (The 53-year-old Napa native asked that her last name not be published, citing fear of an abusive former husband.)
They had met in more stable times, as co-workers at the Napa Home Depot store. But health problems led Laura to quit and a failed alcohol test cost Simpson his job.
By last September, the loss of their jobs had led to the loss of their north Napa studio apartment, her vegetable garden, and their roots for a settled life.
“Robert’s brother in Portland was ill and wanted us to visit,” Laura recalled. “Well, the day we got on the bus, he died, so we buried him instead.” Then came a detour to Denver, a falling-out with Simpson’s sister, and fruitless attempts to find shelter space in that city before heading back to Napa.
For the past month, the couple’s nearest thing to home has been two of the 50 cots on Merlot Hall’s concrete floor. The building is in its fourth winter hosting Napa’s Emergency Winter Shelter, where Community Action Napa Valley (CANV) steers homeless people with the most pressing needs to be indoors.
Transient life is relatively new to Robert Simpson and Laura, who pass the evenings alongside men and women who have spent as long as a decade in various Napa shelters. Despite their losses, they appeared grateful for the small mercy of a bed and a roof, not yet hardened by the experience — or else not allowing it to show.
“We hold our heads high and we keep walking,” the normally laconic Simpson said, his narrow eyes and balding pate growing animated. “We’re not ashamed. God put us here for a reason. This isn’t what we wanted, but this is what we have — a warm place and nice people to watch over us.
“It’s one of those things that could happen to anybody.”
Coming in from the cold
The Emergency Winter Shelter occupies one of four tiers in the homeless services web that CANV runs under contract with Napa County. While the others are geared toward helping people find their way to eventual independence, the winter shelter’s essential goal is simply to keep people out of immediate physical danger from freezing and damp nighttime weather.
“To be blunt, the reason for this shelter’s existence is so folks don’t die on our streets when it’s 28 degrees outside,” said Linda Powers, a longtime CANV official who took over the shelter project in July.
Those staying at Napa’s two permanent facilities, the South Napa Shelter and the Samaritan Family Shelter, must meet weekly with CANV case managers, and continue to search for work and counseling to keep their places there.
Most people seeking a place at one of the three shelters must register at the Hope Resource Center on Fourth Street, which provides mail, telephones, washing machines, and the showers people are required to use before a night at the Expo. (The Hope Center also offers job- and housing-search assistance, medical and mental health care, and other services.)
As Napa’s last-resort space, the winter shelter also receives new parolees and others referred there by Napa County authorities — and keeps five extra cots in reserve for those with no other roof.
Since its founding 15 years ago, the winter shelter has had to move four times. Each new location came with neighbors’ and business owners’ worries about crime and security.
In the program’s four winters since moving to the fairgrounds in November 2009, Napa police have responded to nine calls directly related to the shelter, with only two of them in the past two years, according to Capt. Jeff Troendly. Three were reports of assault, three were complaints of unwanted visitors, one reported an intoxicated person and one was a disturbance complaint.
“We’ve not seen huge increases in any type of behavior unusual for the area,” Troendly said Thursday. “There may be things that happen that don’t rise to the level of police intervention. With 50 people in one room, there’s a strong likelihood of disagreement at some time.”
Board members at the Expo approved the shelter’s move to its current premises after accepting security measures, including fences to separate the homeless from the bingo players and RV owners visiting the fairgrounds.
People seeking a cot at the Expo check in at the Hope Center, where they must also shower before being walked over the Napa River east to Merlot Hall. The shelter’s staff — three people during the evening and two overnight — admit one group shortly after 5 p.m., then others with jobs at 7 and 9 p.m.
Chain-link fences enclose the hall, an outdoor smoking area and a path to nearby restrooms, separating the homeless from visitors going to fairground events. Two rows of cots are reserved for women, with men forbidden to cross into their area of the hall.
Strolling the rows of beds were three CANV staff members — one of whom had slept in the same beds four years earlier.
“I know just about all these people, slept on these cots,” said Chris Lugo, part of the winter shelter’s watch team.
A onetime longshoreman and construction worker, Lugo had landed in the winter shelter for several months after the Great Recession slowed building projects, and their jobs, to a trickle. After stays in the winter shelter and the South Napa facility, he spent six months working at the Kennedy Park golf course, and the balance of the year pitching in at the place that had sheltered him.
“It made me a better man — made me patient in how to deal with 50 people and 50 mindsets,” he said. “I’ve been in the valley most of my life; I grew up with these people, and they respect me because I respect them.”
Lugo admitted to sometimes displaying a firm side with shelter residents who become disruptive or excessively foul-mouthed. “Hey, turn it down!” he barked toward the TV watchers sitting a few yards from his desk, as a movie character fired several gunshots.
More often, he described himself as more than a watchman and often a willing ear for homeless people with no nearby relatives, or none who will acknowledge them.
“Lots of them just want someone to listen to them about their problems — about trying to be safe, or ‘I gotta call my mom’ or ‘I gotta call my children’ or how the day went, what to do about this or that.
“They get mad at each other sometimes and we try to calm them down,” he said. “But we don’t want to throw people out; we only do it to people who drink or put people in harm’s way. Ninety-eight percent of them are great people in rough times.”
Demand at the Emergency Winter Shelter tends to fall in the weeks leading to Christmas, then rise again after New Year’s Day, according to Powers, who said some local homeless likely return after briefly staying with relatives during the holidays.
While attendance is not sharply up from pre-recession years, Powers noted that the lack of a spike in visits can be misleading.“It’s like the unemployment numbers where you stop reporting the people who’ve stopped looking for jobs,” she said. “We’ve gotten to a level where people can’t afford to live here anymore.
“If you’re employable, you’ll look closer to home rather than go to Napa. Those who are more mobile are moving away, but some don’t have the luxury of leaving town.”
Those homeless who do remain in Napa, according to Powers, include a higher share of those with chronic conditions — drug addiction, alcoholism and mental problems that bar their way to steady work or housing.
“They’ve got to overcome those things that prevent them from being employed, being housed and being healthy,” she said. “I’ve got names on our (voucher) list for the winter shelter that were there in 2002, and they’re still there in 2012. There’s something wrong with that.”
Inside Merlot Hall, the shelter staff turns out the lights at 10 each night. Two hours before curfew, however, about half of the evening’s three dozen visitors were fast asleep in their cots, some within 15 minutes of arriving. Only the corner TV, a handful of men ignoring the screen in favor of a card game, and the few people chatting around boxes of donated pastries broke the Expo hall’s silence.
Nearby, Laura was silent but not yet asleep. In a tightly packed longhand, between sips of apple-spice tea from a foam cup, she scribbled an entry into the journal she began upon returning to Napa: recording another day without a home, another day with only Simpson’s company.
Less than four months on the street was plenty of time for her to feel the stigma of others, a stigma she said already marbles the pages of her would-be manuscript.
“It’s sad, the stigma, the profiling. We’re all still people,” Laura said, the bounciness of her earlier mood absent. “They put us down because they have something and we have nothing. Somebody needs to be homeless for a while and then write a thesis about it — that would be a way to heaven. This a whole ‘nother world.”
Forty pages and counting, the journal remains her private stash of thoughts for the moment. But Laura said she hopes her writings will coalesce into something more, perhaps a book to share with others — maybe even the same people giving her a wide berth on the streets outside.
“My goal is to show the other side of being homeless, show people we’re not dirt,” she said. “People step over to the other side of the sidewalk when they see you. I can feel sorry for myself and give up; I made a choice not to. And it gives me hope every day.”