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‘I feel safe here’
Pilot homeless day center program offers safe haven, resources
We Care day center 1
We Care Navigation Center case manager Corey Mai works with a client on Tuesday (JOE CORTEZ/The Journal).

A group of men and women are eating lunch in the back yard of the We Care Navigation Center for the homeless, just a few blocks from downtown Turlock.

Members of the group take turns talking, save for one young man, who has introduced himself as “Jose.” 

You get the feeling that Jose is not his real name, but it could be. There’s an earnestness about him. His long brown hair cascades down each side of his face, framing a thick, full beard and striking blue eyes, giving him a familiar appearance.

“We call him ‘Baby Jesus,’” says Roger Buhl, who is seated across from him and absolutely nails the description.

Jose grins, but, wary of making eye contact, his gaze remains fixed on the steel picnic table at which they’re sitting. He finally works up the nerve and politely raises his hand.

We Care day center 2
Since opening its doors in June, the We Care Navigation Center has been offering individuals a safe place to be during daytime hours, along with on-site mental and medical health services (JOE CORTEZ/The Journal).

“May I say something?” Jose asks.

Very quickly, it’s obvious that Jose misspoke. He should’ve asked if he could say “everything” instead of “something,” because once he gets going, there’s no stopping him.

“I like this place because it has no cameras, it has TVs, lots of resources, we can leave our stuff here, and you can go out for breaks,” says Jose, who said he has been homeless for eight years. “If you get a job, this would be a good place to start to maintain because everyone here is nice and has food. I feel safe here. I feel this is a different connection compared to most places. It’s got a lot of resources and they help you get a job and get your life on track.”

When asked if he feels cared for at We Care, he lifts his gaze and makes such firm eye contact that it’s almost unnerving.

“Yes,” he says firmly, as if realizing he could’ve been much more succinct. “I do.”

This pleases executive director Maris Sturtevant.

“We care at We Care,” she says with a laugh. “There’s your connection.”

Sturtevant explains that the Navigation Center is a relatively new arm of the We Care program, a men-only emergency shelter. Located at 275 3rd St. — essentially the back door of the United Samaritans Foundation — the center was launched in June as a six-month pilot program thanks to nearly $180,000 from the City of Turlock. It’s open from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and, on average, serves 40 to 45 homeless people a day, offering a safe haven once the We Care overnight shelter halts operations at 8 a.m.

“We’ve done a six-month lease with We Care to run a navigation center,” said Linda Murphy-Julien, executive director of USF. “They basically worked with the city to find out how they could make it work, and the city was willing to help fund it for the first six months. And I know it’s busy back there. There’s constantly people coming and going.”

Jose is correct. There are TVs, computers, books, storage for personal possessions, a conference room, and more. An on-site mental-health clinician is available for counseling and once a month a doctor visits to provide free medical care.

We Care new kitchen construction
We Care executive director Maris Sturtevant shows the work being done at the 1,638-square-foot kitchen/dining hall. They expect it to be operational by late September (JOE CORTEZ/The Journal).

All this has become available even as the overnight shelter across the street at 219 Broadway undergoes renovations. A new indoor elevator is being installed to help make the upstairs more accessible to emergency personnel. Next door, a 1,638-square-foot kitchen/dining hall should be operational by late September.

“That’s the goal,” says project manager Mario Quiroga, technically employed by the city. “The elevator will probably take a little longer. I’m hoping mid-November for that project.”

These improvements will cost around $2.8 million, according to Quiroga, and are made possible thanks to grants from the Emergency Solutions Grants program.

We Care also provides a hygiene center, where the homeless can wash their clothes or take a shower even if they don’t typically utilize We Care services.

Turlock City Councilmember Cassandra Abram, who represents District 3, visited the USF facility two weeks ago and came away impressed.

“I think it was well attended for the middle of the week, in the middle of the day,” said Abram. “And I think that it’s filling a need to help connect people to service providers in a way that would be very difficult for individuals to navigate by themselves.”

After her visit, Abram reported back to city manager Reagan Wilson.

"My main focus was to try to understand how it’s going at We Care and how we can help make it better,” said Abram. “I came away from that meeting with ideas that I brought back to our city manager and that I hope will gain traction.”

As Sturtevant wraps up the tour of the facility, Jose warmly extends his hand.

“Thanks for coming today,” he says, a smile spreading across his face.

Buhl chimes in again.

“Write something nice about this place,” he commands. “I love it.”

The Turlock Gospel Mission also operates a day center program. The TGM day center is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week and offers three meals a day, a place for clients to bring their pets, a place to store personal items and a playground for children.

The new pilot program day center and the city’s other homeless services will be the topic of the city council’s next ad hoc committee on homeless meeting, set for 5 p.m. Thursday at City Hall — 156 S. Broadway — in the council chambers. The meeting is open to the public.