Waiting for Chinn

A day center in downtown Eureka will give homeless advocate Betty Chinn a home base



Starting to drizzle, again. A narrow man wearing hoodies, torn jeans and flip-flops approaches Betty Chinn as she gets into her midnight-blue catering truck.

This is Lynn "Frank" Khoury, 55, a former trucker from Florida.

"Hey Betty," Khoury says. "Do you have any more of those heavy-duty rain ponchos? I've been using this plastic to stay dry."

Khoury motions to a cart piled with personal belongings, topped with a tarp/trash bag combo.

Chinn, Eureka's own Mother Teresa, reaches into her truck for a new poncho, still in its package. These run around $20 each online, including shipping. Her husband Leung Chinn, a retired HSU professor, ordered the ponchos for her to give away. The Chinns did not chintz on rain gear. Cheapie ponchos fall apart in Humboldt storms.

Khoury thanks her and explains why he hasn't been around. Chinn listens politely but she's also feeling rushed. She's outside with no umbrella in front of St. Vincent de Paul on Third Street.

She's been up since 2 a.m., collecting homeless teens and bringing them to high schools in Fortuna and McKinleyville. After that, she delivered coffee and doughnuts to folks in 11 homeless encampments around Eureka. She does this every day.

Chinn arrived at St. Vincent's before 8:30 a.m., as she does three days a week, to get the showers going for a few dozen street-dwelling adults.

Then Chinn will go home or to a local church to start making dinner. Volunteers help several times a week. Today she's cooking alone, making 24 restaurant buffet-sized pans of chili bean-rice casserole and 500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be served with bananas and orange juice. She'll take this meal to 11 homeless encampments tonight.

Most days, Chinn gets to bed around 11 p.m.

Chinn is a saint. On that, Eureka folks seem to agree.



There's less agreement, perhaps, on Chinn's approach to the homeless -- and to her new partnership with Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa to open the Betty Kwan Chinn Homeless Foundation Day Center on the corner of Seventh and C streets.

The day center will attract increasing numbers of homeless people, critics fear.

The day center will help connect Eureka's chronically homeless with needed programs and services, proponents argue.

It's a topic much debated online and in the op-ed section of the daily news. But the argument is a moot one, really.

Thanks to California law, critics can do little to stop the day center. No public hearing is needed. There'll be no vote. The building is bought and paid for with private funds. And it's located in an area of Eureka zoned "service commercial," where an emergency shelter is a "principally permitted land use," according the Eureka city code.

Three years ago, Chinn came up with the idea for a center. A place where people could sit inside -- rain or shine. A program that extends her impact into the lives of the needy.

"I clothe them, I provide the shower, I feed them, but I have not the way to lift them up," she says. "I don't have the programming. Or the guidance. I don't have the time. I have no time!"

The day center will centralize Chinn's operations, provide her with a kitchen and a staff.

"And I will have a place to be," Chinn says. "Right now, I'm homeless. I'm here and there and everywhere."
As Chinn climbs into her truck, a man across the street shouts, "There she is, the amazing, world-famous Betty Chinn!"

She grins and waves back.

Chinn, now in her early 50s, was not always world famous. She knows what it feels like to be marginalized, to live on the fringe, to be treated like human trash. Ripped from her upper middle-class home by Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, she saw family members shot. She was tortured. Socially isolated. Humiliated. Starved. To keep warm at night, she huddled in a trash heap. That's where she slept. And where she ate.

"When I was a little kid, every time I asked for food, I got beat up," she says.

And that's just the first 45 minutes of the screenplay that could be crafted from Chinn's life. There's a rescue by siblings in the dead of night. Then a long journey -- hiding during the day and trekking in the dark, walking all the way to freedom in Hong Kong.

As a teen, she traveled to San Francisco. She learned English from watching Sesame Street. She enjoyed Oscar the Grouch, who lived in a trashcan.

Then came an arranged marriage to Leung Chinn who'd become a Humboldt State physics professor. The couple now has two grown sons.

And in Eureka, Chinn's quest to exorcise the demons of her childhood --starvation, filth, lack of shelter -- has made her a beloved public figure and winner of a national citizen award granted personally by President Barack Obama.

She's been a guest on Oprah, a tireless dispenser of coffee and doughnuts, a friend to homeless redwood-dwelling teens as well as to drug addicts sleeping in the doorways of Old Town.

The amazing, world-famous Betty Chinn.
After Chinn drives away, Khoury lauds her goodness and says he'll appreciate the day center, a dry hangout during the day, a place to use the bathroom.  

He describes how he quit his job and chose to be homeless as a spiritual quest.

"I'm searching, trying to figure out what's going on with the human race, why we're killing our planet, why we're complacent about it."

A small car pulls up in front of St. Vincent's. A woman, Chinn copycat, holds paper lunch bags out the window. "Does anyone want a sandwich?"

Khoury takes two lunch bags and hands one to a man leaning in the doorway, out of the rain, not talking. Khoury has pulled a fifth of vodka out of his gear and tucks the bottle near his hip. "The disease," he continues, "must be inside of us."

Later that afternoon, five men play cribbage under the trees in a parking lot on Washington Street. Waiting for Chinn. An all-purpose utility knife keeps cards from blowing away. One man's feet, bare with deep cracks, are tucked under his slender frame. He won't reveal his "birth certificate" name but doesn't dispute its age, 37.

"I go by ‘Genocide'," he says. "I'm not from this world. I'm not designed like a human."

He wears a jacket with torn bits of fabric sewn on the back, spelling the word "wrath" around a star.  He's from Kansas but he had to leave, he says. "They destroyed everything. The fishing's gone. They shot the wolves."

Genocide talks at length about what he calls the work of "soul collection" and the problems he sees with society.

"In this world," he says, "they let anyone be born. They're never going to learn. The most important commandment is ‘Thou shalt not covet.'"

Genocide's connections to civilization seem tenuous. He has his friends. And Chinn.

"Miss Betty's cool. I appreciate her coffee in the morning. Most mornings, that's why I get up. That's the only reason."

He's looking forward to the day center.
"I would work there for free," he says. "Miss Betty's really cool."
The "For Sale" sign is gone from the window at 133 Seventh St., the 4,900-square-foot commercial/retail building that will become Chinn's day center. The building is across from Marcella's Draperies, catty-corner from the Hyundai sales lot and just a couple of doors from the Eureka Police Department.

Santa Rosa philanthropist Henry Trione, 92, son of a Fortuna baker, donated the purchase price, $221,000.

"Good location, good deal. We're really thankful," says Chuck Fernandez, executive director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Santa Rosa.

Fernandez is pleased that Chinn's outreach to people in homeless encampments will continue -- and be strengthened.

"It's really difficult for her," Fernandez says of Chinn. "She's doing a lot of work.

"The hope is to create systems around Betty, so that the work can continue. You and I and Betty aren't going to be around forever. Those living in poverty will always be there. We want to be there to support the homeless and the city of Eureka for a long time."

With the help of local developer Kurt Kramer, day center renovation plans are under way.  Work can begin in March or April. If all goes well, the center could be open in June or July.

Three local people will be hired to work at the day center -- a program director to manage day-to-day operations, a volunteer coordinator and a case manager to work directly with individuals in need.

The center will have a separate area for teenagers and a computer center for sending email or using social networks, developing job skills and looking for work and housing. The building's upstairs apartment will provide transitional housing for three to five people. These residents would be employed at the center, doing neighborhood watches, clean-ups and "trying to get people out of the doorways and into the day center, instead of hanging out on the streets," Fernandez says.

At neighboring businesses, owners and workers didn't want to be named in this story. One admitted to mixed feelings -- a lack of enthusiasm at having a shelter in the neighborhood and relief that it's Chinn's project.

An employee of another business suggested offhandedly that homelessness would be best handled through work.

"I hear McDonalds is hiring."
The first homeless teen girl that Chinn fed, she says, is now a certified public accountant. Right now, Chinn counts four students at Humboldt State and another four at the College of the Redwoods -- all former homeless teens who she's helped.

She tells the story of helping a teen boy who nobody liked. "Runny nose, all the time, peed his pants." The boy had been in 13 foster homes, many of them abusive, before running away. Chinn lost touch with him but, years later, received an invitation to a doctoral degree graduation ceremony at UC-Davis. "Do you remember me?" a grown man asked.

"He's a nice-looking man now," Chinn says. "He said to me, ‘Every time I come to eat food from you, you always reminded me that I would be somebody.' That stuck with him, the desire to go higher and higher so that he would be somebody."

This, Chinn says, is why she takes homeless teens to high school each day.

"Never, never, never give up the child," she says. "Never ever."

Some of Chinn's success stories stick around.

Jeremy Hackney, 34, grew up in Fortuna. Hackney now lives under a building's eave. He shares the space with two other homeless men, men he considers close friends.

"Miss Betty clothes me," Hackney says. "She's fed me for a year and a half. She doesn't ask for anything in return. She doesn't make you jump through hoops. She's awesome. I'd do anything for her."

Hackney, once a heavy equipment operator for a local construction firm, now works for Chinn in the mornings at St. Vincent's. He monitors individuals coming in for 20-minute showers. He cleans shower rooms between uses.

When the day center opens, Chinn says, Hackney can move into the transitional housing and work at the center.

For now, Hackney enjoys his community of outdoor dwellers. He plays cards with friends in the afternoon while waiting for Chinn's dinner delivery. Sure, it rains. Gets cold. But a person can get used to sleeping on the ground. And Chinn's arrival is a highlight of everyone's day.

"It's good around here," Hackney says, joking. "We're probably the most spoiled bums on the planet."

Hackney and others who volunteer serve as models, Chinn says.

"Jeremy had will power to change," she says. "He said, ‘I'll clean up all my baggage and come to help Miss Betty for help.' So did all the other guys [who volunteer]. They know I don't want any baggage. When they stop drugs, anything like that, they can have their own power. They can do it. These guys, I can really depend on them."

When people come to Chinn for help, she warns them that the transition will be rough. They'll make mistakes. She expects them to keep trying.

"OK, you fail. But if you fail, stand up and go forward. "
California law makes emergency shelters NIMBY-proof, thanks to L.A.-based state legislator Gil Cedillo, author of California's Dream Act (2011) and Senate Bill 2 (2007). SB 2 requires all California cities to establish a zoning area that allows emergency shelters. The shelter need only comply with basic operating and zoning standards -- parking, landscaping, fenced trash areas -- and will be permitted without "discretionary review" by local governments.

Earlier this year, Eureka city planning director Rob Wall rewrote Eureka's city ordinances to comply with SB 2. Not much needed to change. Since the mid-1990s, Wall says, Eureka's city code allowed emergency shelters that met permitting requirements to operate. But the process included a hearing in front of the City Council. That's what changed.

"The public hearing had to be struck because it was not consistent with SB 2," Wall says.

To run Chinn's day center, operators need to get the structure and grounds up to code. "But as long as it meets code, they can't be denied," Wall says.

In fact, Wall predicts the day center will be a boon for the city when housing development reports roll around. Eureka's community development department can boast about the new program.

"We can report that we're abiding by Senate Bill 2 and it's working well," Wall says.
One Tuesday in December, while Chinn's still out serving dinner, the Eureka City Council meets at 6 p.m. There's an energy report and the swearing in of re-elected incumbents.

Mayor Frank Jager offers up the podium for public comments.

Two Occupy members speak, each for three minutes, about matters including the police department's "absolute total disregard for civil rights" and "casual disdain for the poorest members of our community." A local beautician describes a frustrating scenario involving a wheelchair ramp. A woman congratulates Councilwoman Linda Atkins on her re-election.

Real estate developer Don Davenport takes the podium, spending his three minutes pleading with the council to rethink the city's approach to homelessness. A day center operated by Catholic Charities and Betty Chinn seems nice. But Davenport contends that it would create problems.

"They come here," he begins, referring to the operators of the day center, "and have this warm fuzzy thing for the homeless. And they close at 5 and go home to their warm fuzzy houses. And we have to deal with them," now referring to the homeless, "at night. They defecate. They sleep in the doorways of our businesses. They throw their trash anywhere you can imagine. This homeless thing is out of hand."

Davenport relates an anecdote about his recent 55-year reunion at Eureka High. Friends from out of the area returned to Eureka for the reunion. "What happened to our town, Don?" they asked him.

Davenport suggests that indigent folks are attracted to Eureka because it's a great place to be homeless.

"I don't mind taking care of people who are homeless, who are from this community," he concludes. "But I resent taking care of people who come from other communities."
Hungry folks congregate around Chinn's blue truck.

"For some of them, this is the only meal they get," says Tom Cook, 58. He's under a tree with a cane and a folded umbrella. Clean sweater, crisp denim jeans. "It's a wonderful thing she does, Betty."

Cook, a disabled veteran, is not homeless now though he's been down that road. Cook's story includes being hit by a car, going through rehab in San Francisco and moving to Humboldt County to be closer to family members.

Cook's story also includes alcoholism, a misappropriated pension, a stay at the Eureka Mission and, as of today, 1.5 months of sobriety.

"It doesn't take much to get back on your feet once you sober up," he says.

Chinn helps people in ways missed by other service providers.

"Some of these people, mentally ill, addicted, are unable to cope with life," Cook says. Chinn serves these people, not on her terms, but on theirs.

A man walks up and asks Cook for a light. Cook doesn't smoke.

"All these homeless have cigarettes," Cook observes. "They can't afford food but they have cigarettes."

Also waiting for Chinn are Honey Bidwell and her two boys, Tynce, 6, and Buddha, 4, who recently migrated from a forest encampment to town. The family's been given temporary emergency shelter in a local motel.

The two boys race across the parking lot, egged on by Cook, who's just met them.

"Hey! Watch out for cars!" Bidwell shouts. "Hey!" She shrugs. "They don't listen."

It's Buddha's birthday tomorrow. Cook gives the boy a dollar. Buddha brings the cash to his mom.

"I tell ‘em, if they ever find money to give it straight to me," Bidwell says. She tells Buddha he can keep the money. "Don't lose it!"

Bidwell's from Fort Scott, Kan., but calls herself a wanderer with Gypsy blood. She says she's writing a book about her life -- and her husband's murder. Its title will be "Memories of a Gypsy Widow."

Bidwell has tattoos on her legs and arms -- even on her forehead. The all-seeing third eye of Anunnaki covers the back of her right hand. Bidwell attributes the work to a good friend and Kansas City tattoo artist named Pony Boy.

"Hey!" Bidwell's boys are racing across the parking lot again. Tynce's pants are a bit too big. "Your butt's hanging out!"
After delivering his plea to the city council, Davenport drives to a vacant property he's trying to lease on Fifth Street. He owns this building, a one-time Pizza Hut, near McDonalds and across from a furniture store. It's a prime location for a restaurant, Davenport contends. But the empty building's also a magnet for vagrants. After being out of town for a couple of weeks, he filled one 30-gallon trash bag and half of another. He picked up sheets of slept-on cardboard from near the empty restaurant's front door and from the backdoor -- a nicely sheltered alcove.

Tonight, only a few bits of trash. Davenport dons plastic gloves. "The rain's keeping them in," he says, collecting a paper cup, food wrappers and bits of plastic stuck in the bushes. He pulls detritus from an alcove. "They sleep in here, defecate in here. I find needles."

Davenport's a proud conservative. He blames environmentalists for lost jobs in the forestry industry. After President Lyndon Johnson created Redwood National Park in 1968, logging jobs dried up.

"So we have become a mecca for the so-called homeless, and you know I have empathy for some of them," Davenport says. "One of the worst things Ronald Reagan did, as governor of California, was to close mental institutions. So we have all these people who shouldn't be out on the street."

Chinn's day center isn't the first social service that Davenport has fought. In 2004, he led a court battle that successfully nixed the city of Eureka's efforts to transform the Fireside Inn into a North Coast Veterans Resource Center. His attorneys argued that city zoning prohibited the center.

With SB 2 in place, zoning won't be an issue for Chinn and Catholic Charities. But Davenport thinks the City Council could do something to stop the day center -- if only the leaders weren't so gutless.

From Davenport's perspective, offering no-strings-attached handouts doesn't force the chronically homeless to encounter the natural consequences of life on the streets. Davenport favors a hands-off approach with those who, in his view, have chosen to be homeless.

"If you want to go out and drink and take drugs, don't expect the community to take care of you," he says. "If you want to sleep under bridges, you're going to die. It sounds harsh. But that's your choice, Charlie Brown."
Fernandez has a class reunion story, too. Recently, he attended a reunion on the Hawaiian island of O'ahu at Punahou School, renowned as President Obama's high school alma mater. Fernandez stayed in a Waikiki hotel, walked on the beach and went jogging in nearby Kapiolani Park.

"I would literally be stepping over people sleeping, on the beach sleeping, in the park sleeping, more than I had ever seen," Fernandez says.

Homelessness is everywhere. "It's sad to see what you see."

Fernandez contends that providing services for the homeless doesn't exacerbate the problem. Catholic Charities has been observing this since 1994, when it opened its first shelter in Santa Rosa.

"Our experience is that our opening a shelter does not draw more people to the community," he says. "It's never been our experience that we build it and they will come."

The day center's hours of operation in Eureka have not yet been determined, Fernandez says. Closing at 5 p.m. is not unlikely. But three to five individuals will be living on the property doing neighborhood watches and cleanups.

Chinn's daily trips to homeless encampments help identify people in need of services. Chinn helped at least 17 families get off the streets in 2012. She connected a handful of homeless teenage girls with needed services the first weekend in December -- and reunited at least one teen runaway with her family.

That's the gap that Chinn fills in Humboldt County, Fernandez says.

"We meet people where they are," he says. "I can't force services on a homeless person if they don't want it."

And what about Eureka as a "mecca" for the homeless?

A 2011 count showed that Humboldt County's homeless population decreased by more than 400 adults between 2009 and 2011. The 2011 Point-In-Time Count, conducted by the Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition, counted 1,064 homeless adults on one predetermined day in January, down from 1,497 adults in 2009.

In the study's report, coalition members attribute this success to services that get people back in housing sooner. But the study itself might have been flawed, the report acknowledges, as fewer agencies helped with the 2011 count.

True, many helpful agencies provide emergency food and shelter for needy humans in Humboldt County. An eight-page handout, available at the welfare office, lists 16 places from Garberville to McKinleyville where needy individuals can get food. Twelve groups provide housing assistance. Six places offer clothing.
But Eureka lacks many of the other attractive qualities that would make it a destination resort for the discriminating wanderer.

An online source offering tips for "going homeless" advises heading for warm, affluent places: "You want to go where the weather's sunny all year long," advises the Uncyclopedia. "[And] have you seen the valuables people in Palm Springs just throw away? Trust us, you want to be homeless where people have money."

By that logic, Humboldt County is too darn cold, rainy and, outside of its potent growth industry, too economically depressed to be a homeless mecca.
Chinn may be a saint. She's not a superhero.

A 10-year-old spinal injury leaves her in pain much of the time. She has no feeling in her left leg. On one rainy day, she slipped and fell four times. When she took a day off to attend a niece's graduation, she slept a long, long time. She told relatives not to wake her up -- not even to eat.

That scenario repeated itself at Thanksgiving, when she slept for a day and a half at her adult son's house.

"My kids say I tie myself so tight," she says. "I don't allow myself to feel emotion or pain in my body."

When she tried to relax -- to let it all go?

"You know, my pain hurt. Every part of my body hurt. That was not fun."

Though she's not much of a church-goer, she went a service one Sunday morning, just to sit and collect her thoughts.

She tries not to waste her energy by becoming overly emotional. But when she encounters families living in the woods, day after day, families with small children, mentally unwell humans who have no warm, dry home of their own, who use a five-gallon bucket as a toilet, she finds it hard to stave off despair.

That's when she calls a friend, she says, as she did one recent soggy Saturday. Chinn wept.

"I cried, ‘When is it gonna end? When is it all gonna end?" That was a tough time for me."

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