Thursday, September 16, 1999
Jeri Ferguson''s life these past few years has been a study in unexpected turns. It has also been a lesson in how far one can fall and how far one can soar back up again--sometimes, all in the space of just a few months.
About a year ago, Ferguson was homeless, had a strained relationship with her family, and wondered where she''d go when her two months at the Shelter Outreach Plus emergency housing shelter in Salinas ran out.
Today, she lives in a neat, two-story house on Fort Ord that''s decorated with pictures of her grandchildren. She goes to Hartnell College, edits her college paper, is learning Spanish, and volunteers at least two hours a week at Homeward Bound, the transitional housing program that has given so much to her--and to which she wants to give back.
"Everybody''s got a spirit, that when you run into trouble will help you out," says Ferguson, 51, a former medical technician whose career ended after suffering a back injury. "That''s what happened to me here."
And help her out it did. Ferguson is one of the 29 women and men who live at Homeward Bound, a Shelter Outreach Plus program that gives homeless adults and families a low-cost place to live, counseling programs, employment and educational opportunities, and a shot at a new life.
Ferguson is learning the skills that will keep her from ever being homeless again. That''s only for starters. She''s also participating in one of the programs that has helped turn Fort Ord--the closed Army base perhaps best known as the home of CSUMB--into a national model for how homeless service providers can get the most from former military lands.
"We''ve had a level of success here with our homeless programs that generally hasn''t been seen elsewhere in the country," says Tom Melville, executive officer of the Coalition for Homeless Service Providers, which oversees homeless programs at Fort Ord.
Most of the county''s programs for the homeless, in fact, can be found on Fort Ord property--just a few blocks apart. Five are currently up and running:
The two Homeward Bound programs run by Shelter Outreach Plus, born of the merger of Peninsula Outreach and Shelter Plus, two nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping the homeless. The programs include 25 units on Wittenmyer Court in Marina for single women with or without children, and eight units on Lexington Court for families.
A family services and care center run by Children''s Services International that can serve up to 200 children and their parents. (Opened in 1996.)
Shelter Cove transitional housing for up to 13 mentally disabled adults run by Interim, Inc. (Opened in 1997.)
Pueblo Del Mar, a 52-unit program run by the county Housing Authority, which serves those who have completed substance abuse treatment. That program, which opened in December, currently houses 33 families--59 children and 39 adults.
Among the eight social-service programs now in the works for Fort Ord are food pantry and transitional housing programs for homeless youth, veterans, and single men or men with children.
Melville and others say there are many reasons for the success at Fort Ord, among them perseverance, know-how, and cooperation among the county and different nonprofit agencies who now run shelters.
"We were very persistent in getting those programs online, where other places have not been that successful at all," says Bob Glick, executive director of Shelter Outreach Plus. "What makes us unique is that we have a number of programs. We came together and said we want to operate really good programs out here on Fort Ord. It''s not that we started out to be a national model, it''s just that we were successful at it, and we''ve been able to say, ''See, yes, base reuse can work.''"
When Fort Ord was slated for closure about 10 years ago, then-Congressman Leon Panetta urged local nonprofits to get together and take advantage of the McKinney Act, a federal program that gives free land to homeless service providers. Since then, some $11 million worth of land has been transferred to local agencies, which in turn secured some $8 million in state and federal dollars to rehabilitate the buildings and property. The groups also had the help of land-use and environmental planners skilled in the transition of federal lands.
"Most of the programs required under the original McKinney Act have failed," says Sandra Reeder of the county Housing Authority. "This is one of the few base reuse examples where any number of programs have been able to be successfully pulled off and welcomed by the community. A lot of the other McKinney providers didn''t have the sophistication on land-use and planning and rehab issues. They just didn''t have the partnership we developed."
But it wasn''t just the partnership that helped the Fort Ord homeless community grow. It was the land--lots and lots of free land.
"That''s the only reason" the services were able to succeed, Glick says bluntly. "As a nonprofit competing on the open market, we can''t afford to pay those exorbitant rents. When Fort Ord closed, it was a unique, one-time opportunity."
Today, most of Fort Ord''s homeless programs are at capacity and have waiting lists. Homeward Bound is about 80 percent full, Glick says, and is gaining new clients almost daily.
Ferguson, who has been with Homeward Bound since January and plans a career in counseling, says the community needs more programs like it.
"This program has given me so much," she says. "We have workshops on anger management, how to save money on a low budget, how to dress for success. This teaches you how to live."