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New Direction 

The fall and rise of John Shelter, homeless advocate turned entrepreneur

It was a bad day for John Shelter. The slightly stocky, mustachioed 53-year-old was trying hard not to cry. Despite the usual determined glare in his hazel eyes and occasional bursts of infectious guffaw, Shelter almost did cry when a man inside the North Coast Resource Center shuffled slowly by. The man was heading to the tables where he volunteered every day to sort through produce, picking out the good, tossing the bad.

"They call it the 'thorazine shuffle,'" Shelter said. "He's medicated -- he has major mental health issues." His voice caught when he added, "What's he going to do tomorrow? The thing is, most of our mentally ill have a place here. They stack bread. Organize books. They're in here contributing, and not out there in the public wandering around."

It was Dec. 30, and it was a bad day for a lot of other people, too. It was the last day of operation for the NCRC, which was going on temporary hiatus. For nearly 35 years, the nonprofit organization had been devoted to helping the poor and homeless. It had grown from a simple food pantry to providing a range of services, everything from basic needs -- food, cleanliness, legal resources -- to long-term housing and employment. In exchange for such help, the recipients volunteered their time, helping run the center and even doing trash and weed cleanup and festival support projects.

Shelter had worked here since 2005 and had been the executive director from 2007 until 18 months ago, when he and four others were laid off because the center had run out of money. Shelter kept working as a volunteer.

Now, still funding-short, the NCRC's board of directors had decided to shut down and regroup, saying it hopes to reopen the center sometime in the future as a trimmer, more tightly focused operation. If and when that happens, Shelter will not be part of the restructured organization; he has not been asked to come back to serve as executive director.

So this is a pivotal moment. Will he despair, slip into a homeless quagmire like the last time he'd lost a job he passionately loved? That was 20 years ago. Back then, he'd lost his business and his home, and his ex-wife had gained custody of their two daughters. It devastated him. This time, although finances are tight, he has his third wife, Jill, by his side. His kids are grown and living engaged, healthy lives nearby. He is deeply committed to helping homeless people, especially the single ones upon whom society casts the most disapproving glances (he can relate). And he has a plan.

 

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John Shelter says his separation from the NCRC was not his idea. "I never quit anything," he said defiantly as he walked quickly about the center on its last day, stopping now and then to chat and laugh with clients and fellow volunteers. He was wearing a black "Humboldt" hoodie over a striped blue-and-white button-up shirt, a ball cap with a big American flag and bald eagle head on the front, and blue jeans with a cell phone holster snapped through a belt loop. He looked comfortably like one of the regular folks, but he moved purposefully, in charge, eyes darting about to take everything in.

Members of the NCRC board say he wasn't fired -- and they're getting tired of hearing rumors that he was. How could he be? He'd been a volunteer for the past 18 months, ever since the center ran out of money and had to lay off Shelter and three other employees -- leaving, in the end, only the gleaner (the guy who drives around picking up donations) and another support staffer employed.

So he hadn't been executive director for 18 months. He was a volunteer, said board member Wendy Schulze, with the official title of "community spokesperson."

It gets confusing, however. Some people thought he was still the executive director.

During the past 18 months, Shelter still functioned, with no apparent objection from the board, as the face of the organization -- signing off as executive director in correspondence with government officials and being interviewed under the same title. Shelter said it was just habit, calling himself that, and people still saw him as the person in charge. But he said the board was making official decisions.

Regardless: What Shelter and board members agree on is that the board asked Shelter if he would like to come back as the operations manager, working under a new executive director, when they found the money to open again. He said no.

So why did the board not want him as the executive director anymore?

Board members seem reluctant to talk about it. They allude to different issues: Funding difficulties, Shelter's managerial style, disgruntled funders, program focus. But they also make a point of praising Shelter's hard work and the programs he founded.

"John's strongest suit in my opinion is working with the clients, and I think he is fabulous with that," said board member Patti Stammer. "He really connects with them." But he's not as good at working with other groups that help the homeless, she said. "John was very single-minded, and not much of team player. He is a great case manager, a great program director, but not a great executive director."

She said several board members, before she came on, had quit over disagreements with Shelter.

The NCRC had been running on fumes for two years. In the past 18 months, board President Derk Schulze, Shelter and others had been pulling long, paycheck-free hours; Shelter was overseeing the two main programs: the core slate of services under Back-to-Basics and Shelter's latest baby, New Directions. The situation wasn't sustainable.

"John is a dynamic person," Schulze said. "But it was like we were running two nonprofits, Back-to-Basics and New Directions. Basically, there wasn't enough John."

Or, perhaps, there was too much of him?

"The board told me they were going in a different direction -- that the direction they were going under my leadership was not producing any funding," Shelter said. "Derk also told me somebody had offered the agency money to support their effort providing I wasn't in charge anymore."

He said he doesn't know who that might be. Board members don't want to talk about it.

Shelter's success in connecting with homeless people seems to have caused a paradoxical problem. He created more clients than the center could find funding to manage.

Maybe the center and Shelter weren't good enough at fundraising. Or maybe, Shelter and some board members suggest, it was because government grants, of late, have shifted more toward family-oriented services. Perhaps certain clients, like those in New Directions, didn't appeal to those with money to give.

 

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Twenty-seven-year-old Stacy Jensen didn't even know, until she was older, that her dad had been homeless -- that they were homeless -- for a spell during her childhood. That those times he brought her and her older sister, Victoria, with him to stay with friends or to camp in the van at the KOA campground weren't anything other than visits and camping. They'd pile into that huge, orange, awesome double-decker van, with its sink and bathroom and beds, and go barreling down the highway singing at the top of their lungs with Roxette:

C'mon join the joyride, join the joyride.

Or maybe Eddy Grant:

We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue

And then we'll take it higher

"I totally remember us all rocking out, 'enjoying the joy ride,'" Jensen said, laughing, over the phone recently. "And I remember singing ‘Electric Avenue' with my dad, and he was just so funny! I remember us going on some really fun road trips -- going to the snow, going to Willow Creek, going camping."

She said her dad, John Shelter, did a wonderful job of keeping his homelessness and troubles to himself. He didn't want to worry his daughters, who also lived part time with their mother, by dwelling on the fact that he had no permanent place for them to stay.

"He'd say, ‘OK, guys, we're going to go and do this' -- go camping, go visit friends," recalled Jensen. "So it was always just another fun adventure."

She remembers seeing him get up early, too, to go look for work and a place to stay. "And that's why my sister and I have a really wonderful work ethic," she said. "My dad worked as hard as he could to always provide for us, even when he was homeless."

Jensen even chose a profession similar to her dad's: She works at the county animal shelter. (And yes, the last name is genuine; it was handed down by Shelter's German-Italian father.)

"He wants to help people," Jensen said. "I want to help animals. We both want to be the advocate for beings who can't stick up for themselves."

Shelter became homeless in 1989. He had moved to Humboldt from Long Beach in 1984, seeking a new life for himself and his two daughters, who were 4 and 6 at the time. Shelter and his first wife had divorced, and Shelter won custody of the children. Friends in Humboldt said to him, "Come on up," so he did.

He was a metallurgist by trade, but Shelter's childhood dream had been to own a restaurant. He grew up with an Italian mother and grandfather who both loved to cook. With savings from his last job at a heat treating plant in Long Beach, he opened a build-your-own burger bar in Sunny Brae called Belly Busters. It included a specialty burger that fed eight people, built on a bun made by Big Loaf Bakeries. By the time he moved the restaurant to Arcata, in 1988, Shelter had added Italian food to the dinner menu.

That's when his ex-wife re-entered the picture. They dated, and remarried. The restaurant, meanwhile, always on a shoestring budget, was failing. Vendors clamored for payment, and they lost the business. One day, Shelter said, he returned from a meeting to find his wife and children gone. He didn't know where they were. He drove everywhere looking for them. Eventually they divorced again, and this time she gained custody of the kids.

"I kind of fell apart, and it took me awhile to regroup," Shelter said. "I felt foolish. I was in a massive depression state. I didn't want to get out of bed. It consumed me."

For the next eight months he couch-surfed at friends' houses and stayed in campgrounds. "I never lived in a tent like some of these guys do," he said. "I always slept on a couch or in a car." Sometimes his daughters stayed with him. And that's when he first noticed, he said, how differently homeless people get treated.

"When I was running my restaurant, I was seen as someone of honor," he said. "But then when I became homeless, I looked different. I'm sure I had a stench -- I was not always on a couch, I didn't always get to take a shower and there were nights I stayed outside in a vehicle. When I was staying at the KOA campground I got visited by the cops -- someone reported a man sleeping in his van with two girls. I got visited by child protective services, too."

When first his eldest daughter, then his youngest, asked to live with him full-time, he made a hasty decision.

"I did what other homeless often do, things you normally wouldn't do: I got into a relationship ... just to put a roof over my head," he said.

He married the woman, and he and the kids moved with her to Blue Lake.

That marriage ended in divorce three years later, and the woman moved out. Shelter, meanwhile, had found work at the Village Pantry, where eventually he met his current wife, Jill. One busy Sunday morning, after someone had soaped up the floor to wash it, he slipped and his arm got caught in the freezer door. His arm hurt too much to cook after that, so he asked the boss to be assigned another task. Shelter said the boss told him to keep his mouth shut and that he was lucky to even have the job. "‘You can leave if you want; you will never make anything of yourself,'" Shelter said he remembered the boss saying. "It took a lot of courage to walk away right then not knowing the future."

It certainly altered his path. One day, while he was on workers compensation as his arm healed from surgery, the person assigned to help him retrain for a new job asked him what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

"I said, 'I want to help people,'" he recalled.

He was placed with the Redwood Community Action Agency, where he first worked in the shelter program, helping people as they came in to use the phone, get dry clothes and connect with other services.

"I loved it so much," he said. "I thrived on it."

He also worked for the county's alternative response team, dealing with child welfare cases, at the Serenity Inn and in clean and sober houses. By 2004 he had enrolled in College of the Redwoods to become certified in substance abuse counseling. In 2005, he went to work at the Arcata Endeavor, which later became NCRC.

"The reason I accepted the job was because everybody hated the Arcata Endeavor," he said. "I said, 'that's the place I wanna go,' because every other place was fixed in what it was doing."

The Endeavor was open to innovation.

 

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When Shelter joined the Arcata Endeavor, in 2005, it had been in a fitful relationship with the City of Arcata and city residents for years. The Endeavor had started out in 1977 as a food pantry at the Presbyterian Church. By 1999, it had outgrown its location and it moved to the city-owned property where it sits to this day, downtown by the bus transit station.

The whole time, there had been battles over what kind of services it should offer, where it should be located, who it should serve and whether they should have to work for their keep.

Shelter wanted to shift the public's perception of the center's homeless clients as mooching layabouts. He wanted them seen as potentially productive members of society.  

In 2006, he and his friend, Sunny Brae Church Pastor Derk Schulze, started the Back-to-Basics program. The idea was that in exchange for basic needs such as food, showers and clean clothes, people had to sign on for counseling and training in skills such as anger management and budgeting. And participants had to do volunteer work in the center or community.

"We had a lot of common ideas," Schulze said. "Dignity first is a good one, and then the other is teaching responsibility, and that there's no such thing as a free lunch."

Soon festival promoters, businesses and others were asking Back-to-Basics to clean up Arcata's streets, maintain garden planters, put up and take down the Christmas lights and set up, clean up and do the recycling at events.

Two and a half years ago, Shelter created New Directions, using Back-to-Basics workers to visit homeless camps, talk to the campers, teach them to clean up after themselves, and sign them up to receive counseling and services aimed at getting them out of there.

Those who refused to get help were ousted by the cops.

So far, Shelter said he's found housing for more than 50 of the original campers out there, and he and his crews have cleaned up more than 100 camps and hauled out more than 100,000 pounds of trash.

During NCRC's hard years, Shelter's New Directions was bringing home much of the bacon in grants and contracts to do cleanup, counseling and exotic weed eradication. The funding included a $5,000 grant from the Union Labor Foundation; $17,000 from the City of Eureka; $15,000 from the California Coastal Conservancy; about $20,000 from the Humboldt Bay Recreation and Conservation District; about $250 a month from the Grocery Outlet to pick up trash and maintain landscaping; and about $450 a month from the Bayshore Mall to return stray carts and clean up trash. Not a fortune, but the crews worked for their meals, which came from donations.

Even so, Stammer said, it wasn't enough to pay for the case management required for the individuals whom Shelter and his crew coaxed out of the woods and marshes.

The upshot? The board, Schulze said, decided to focus its grant-writing on core services: health and hygiene (laundry and showers), nutrition (food box distribution and the community meal), and homeless court (where clients can clear some tickets and work off petty crimes). New Directions was out.

Shelter told the board he wanted to continue working with New Directions, which served single homeless people, many camping illegally in the marshes and forests, who for various reasons couldn't or wouldn't go into traditional shelters such as the Rescue Mission.

So he and the board worked out a deal, of sorts: He could take the program and develop it on his own, turning it from a volunteer enterprise into a transitional employment agency to help people develop a work record.

Once he had it up and running, said board members, maybe they could funnel some of their clients to him.

 

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Late one recent weekday morning in the marsh near Bayshore Mall, next to the sea-sized empty parking lot behind Sears, Shelter's van and trailer were parked beside a big dumpster and the entrance to a hiking trail that heads north through the grass. On the east side of the lot, a man was dragging stuff through a tunnel of brush and packing it onto a bicycle trailer. Over the entrance of the leafy bower he was exiting hung a sparkly "Merry Christmas" banner. Beyond lay the usual swamped, dingy litter of a messy, don't-care camp -- the kind Shelter is determined to get cleaned up.

There were about 10 guys living in that camp, Shelter said, including a felon on parole. When he arrived earlier this morning, he said, he'd found that entire camp drunk and belligerent. He told them to scat, git, they weren't welcome here if they weren't going to behave nicely.

He'd tried with these folks, he said. Walked in there with his crew members saying "Hello, friend" and explained how the program worked: They kept their space free of trash, they got up in the morning and tidied up, and they partook in Shelter's program to get back into housing and employment. In exchange, as long as they were working toward exiting homelessness, the police wouldn't roust them out. It was a switch-around from how things used to be, when the police would sweep through a camp, issuing citations and arresting people and then sending in city cleanup crews to haul out their stuff.

Not interested.

"A guy came out of his tent and said, 'You're not my friend,'" Shelter recalled, raising his eyebrows. "They don't let me in the area." Which made that "Merry Christmas" banner kind of ironic. "Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh! Funny, isn't it?"

If such recalcitrant folks linger too long, making trouble and trashing the place, Shelter lets the cops know. That irks some people.

"John Shelter is what we call in the houseless and poor advocacy community a 'poverty pimp,'" said People's Project activist Kim Starr, who goes by "Verbena," recently over the phone. "Look at New Directions: He is essentially getting grant money from the City of Eureka and doing what the police do to the homeless people every day and night -- taking tents and taking property."

Shelter counters that he only works with people who are willing to be responsible.

Two homeless campers walked out of another tunnel of brush and trees nearby:  Randy Edmondson, 43, tall with a trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and a red mustache; and his wife, Ruthie, 51, short with cropped blonde hair tucked under a Black Velvet ball cap. They both wore clean jeans and clean jackets. Ruthie said they'd lost their jobs in Missoula; it had been four years, Randy added, since he'd had full-time work as a union carpenter. They'd traveled the West looking for work, left their broken down vehicle in Las Vegas, and ended up in Humboldt in 2011 hoping to stay with Ruthie's daughter. But she had moved on. The Edmondsons were broke. They camped in the marsh, and that's where they met Shelter.

They led Shelter back through the tunnel of leaves to show him their neat-as-a-pin camp. Everything folded, fresh trash bag strung on a line, Top Ramen and other cheap food tightly sealed in a white bucket, tarp tucked around a small pile of belongings. On their tent, a plastic-encased notice signed by them and Shelter announced that they had been interviewed and were taking part in New Directions.

"And we don't do drugs or anything like that," said Randy, sternly.

Still, while good intentions might keep the cops at bay, they did nothing to stop natural hazards. Ruthie walked behind the tent to show where high groundwater, which rises here in the winter, had formed a lake a few yards away.

Shelter, looking outraged, swung an arm wide to encompass the soggy marsh, the lake, the Edmondsons and their too-close tent. "See what we're up against?" he said, chin jutting forward and eyes getting glintier. "If I had a nice, dry place to put these people, if I had a campground, they'd probably be the camp hosts."

That is part of Shelter's bigger plan: a campground funded by grants, monitored by his New Directions employees, with rules in place, where people transitioning out of homelessness, and anyone else, could stay for a limited time. And he wants to start opportunity centers in every town and city in Humboldt.

But first he has to turn New Directions into a real business so he can pay his core crew and employ the homeless people he coaxes out of camps.

"They'll only have one job they're eligible for and that's with me," Shelter said. "Remember, they're still homeless. They may not have all their teeth. They probably haven't had a shower in a week. But I'm going to clean them up, employ them at minimum wage, and they'll go through this three- to six-month transitional employment, working with other homeless people and cleaning up trash."

As part of the program, Shelter will teach them to budget their money, and eventually find them other jobs.

Some of his New Directions volunteers have jumped the sinking NCRC ship to join him. Shelter has tentatively arranged for Express Employment Professionals, in Eureka, to be his workers' employer of record and handle payroll, insurance and other paperwork. He has secured space in an office on Myrtle Avenue in Eureka. He has acquired a business license. And he has the institutional support from a key if unofficial partner, the Eureka Police Department.

"If he's working with people and they need a few days, we kind of look the other way," said the EPD's interim police chief, Murl Harpham, by phone recently. He added that the EPD has its own homeless liaison who goes out three times a week to homeless camps to help people get into housing, get medical care and connect with other services. "Anybody he saves and gets out of our hair, then that's a plus. If John contacts us and says he has a problem person, someone who gets in his face or won't try to work with him, then we go down there and have a chit chat with them."

Shelter, meanwhile, is trying to drum up more contracts with private businesses and public entities. Dan Heinen, operations manager with Express Employment Professionals, sounded excited about Shelter's plan when he spoke on the phone recently.

"The fact he's trying to find job opportunities for the harder-to-serve population is wonderful," said Heinen, whose specialty is working with that same population. "John is one of few people with real passion to get down in the trenches and deal with people, in situations where other people would walk by. He looks beyond the dirty fingernails, the long hair ... and sees the person."

Some people Shelter has helped really have succeeded. One now works for the Harbor District, one is a supervisor with the Veterans Resource Center, and a couple of guys now work for a business that takes care of Mad River Hospital's landscaping.

 

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Some of you, no doubt, are perfect. Never hooked up with the wrong person. Never divorced. Never failed in business. Never lost your home. Never couch-surfed at a friend's house or slept in a car or a doorway or the woods or by the railroad tracks. Never got hurt or lost your job or couldn't find your kids -- and certainly never found yourself going on the third week without a bath and other folks staring at you like you're some kind of oversized sewer rat emerged from the underground to plague good, decent humans.

Or maybe some of these things have happened to you, or worse -- but you, blessed with a steely self-esteem, or a good support network, or simply a cat-like ability to land on your feet, you always sprang back into action.

A lot of us fall somewhere in between -- sometimes stuck, sometimes springy. That seems to be the case with John Shelter. Although, if you've met Shelter, you might guess that more often than not he is the feet-first cat. While he could just go lie down on the couch in the McKinleyville home he shares with his wife, Jill, and moan about the dim prospects in Humboldt County, instead he is prowling the neighborhood seeking opportunity and converts to his big plan.

Sure, he can be pretty intense sometimes. J Warren Hockaday, president of the Eureka Chamber of Commerce, obviously admires him. But once you get Shelter talking about the single-homeless population and New Directions, it's hard to shut him up, Hockaday said, laughing.

Well, why shut up? Or quit, for that matter? Like Shelter said himself, he never quits anything -- though it might quit him. Maybe he learned the hard way that quitting wasn't an option, back when he was couch-surfing, fighting depression and trying to keep his daughters from knowing how bad things were. Maybe that second wind he got after his bad time has just never let up.

 
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About The Author

Heidi Walters

Bio:
Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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