An expansion project that is providing additional space for meals and gatherings has been completed at a home on West Emerson Avenue that serves as a shelter for homeless men.
The construction project has created an additional 800 square feet of space for a dining room and an adjacent common area in the single-story home, called Emerson House, reported Debbie Miller, director of the facility, when she showed me the improvements earlier this week.
“Before the expansion, a single room provided limited space for dining and for residents of our facility to gather; it was much too small,” Miller said. “Now with separate dining and living room areas, there is ample space for both activities.”
The construction project, supervised by the general contractor Ginger Sepulveda of GCJ Inc., also included removal of some 350 square feet of substandard construction.
Funds for the expansion project totaling $614,000 came from accumulating three years of community development block grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Miller said.
Other HUD funding approved for the next fiscal year will finance reconstruction of the facility’s kitchen to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards
She noted that the expanded facilities encourage residents to get out of their rooms, and that creates space in the rooms for more beds. Emerson House, in operation for six years, has had capacity for 15 residents — earlier this week, there were 13 residents — and will be able to accommodate several more with the expansion.
In addition to the main house, what is called “an accessory house” at the rear has a large bedroom with three beds.
Miller serves as CEO and treasurer of the Coalition of Tracy Citizens to Assist the Homeless, a nonprofit originally organized in 2009. In addition to Emerson House, it also operates a smaller facility, Rochester House, on Rochester Street in the western part of Tracy for homeless men who have been through the Emerson House program and need further support.
“We are a unique model for really helping the homeless,” Miller said. “A roof alone without guidance will not be successful in moving a resident from being homeless to being a self-sufficient person.”
Miller said those referred to Emerson House by a number of agencies are interviewed and their backgrounds checked for their suitability to take part in a program that relies on a cooperative attitude, prohibits drug and alcohol use, and provides preparation for residents to seek a job leading to the ability “to live independently with sufficient income to afford place of their own.”
As she explained the facility’s program, Miller received word from West High School that an 18-year-old student was homeless, and he was coming over to be interviewed the next day.
Most stays at Emerson House average six months, depending on each resident’s ability to work toward the aims of the support program, which includes goal-setting and counseling and requires having a job.
Miller said the men have jobs with a number of firms in Tracy, including warehousing and distribution, retail, and food service. Residents with jobs pay a small program fee to augment donations from individuals, churches and businesses.
“Many of the jobs are near minimum wage, but with support at Emerson House, those holding jobs can save money to buy a car — needed for self-sufficiency — and have enough cash for living expenses and for first and final months of rent.”
Unlike McHenry House Tracy Family Shelter, which is having great difficulty finding housing in Tracy for families leaving the facility, men departing Emerson House have an easier time, since they can secure single-person rooms or double up.
The need to provide a Tracy facility and program to move the homeless toward independent living was first articulated a decade ago by Marvin Rothschild, a retired Tracy teacher who in 2009 spearheaded the founding of the Coalition of Tracy Citizens to Assist the Homeless. Winning the city lottery to operate a fireworks booth allowed the new nonprofit to generate $26,000, which it used to rent the house on West Emerson Avenue in 2012 to start a residential program for the homeless.
Some of the neighbors who were uninformed about the nature of he Emerson House program became alarmed at the prospects of the homeless living in their midst, sparking protests, Miller recalled.
“I came aboard a few months after it was opened, first as a bookkeeper and then as director, after the dust settled,” Miller said, “The first thing I did was to hold a public meeting to explain what we were doing, and attitudes changed. The neighbors are now our friends and strong supporters.”
A program for both men and women proved unsuccessful, and a few months after Emerson House was opened, it was decided to limit the program to single men.
Miller serves as a unpaid volunteer director. Melinda Ramirez, assistant director, and Robert Green, resident house manager, are part-time paid employees. Providing full-time pay for director and assistant director positions is a goal for the future to ensure management for future growth, Miller said. Ramirez, since arriving in January, has established a computer data-collection system to compile information needed for federal, state and local agencies. She is studying online for a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Chico.
And yes, what about homeless women in Tracy?
“Our dream is to open a residential program for homeless, disabled and elderly women,” Miller said. “There is a real need for that in Tracy, and with our experience at Emerson and Rochester houses, we hope to fill it sometime in the not-too-distant future.”