Creating Community

Several years ago, when Japan had the big tsunami and our Humboldt coasts were threatened with a tsunami of our own, Betty was contacted by a local landowner. This landowner offered to let Betty use some of his property to immediately move some of the homeless people to higher, safer ground. Betty accepted his offer with gratitude, and acting on instinct, she quickly moved over 100 people to higher ground, where they stayed for about a month. The situation worked out well for everyone, and the landlord offered to let Betty use his property in the future when there was a need.

In early September of 2015, Betty acted on her instincts once again. She knew she needed to do something to help the single men and women that were living in the PALCO marsh and Del Norte pier areas. Because of some activities going on there, over 100 of these people had been coming to her saying they were scared. They didn’t feel safe trying to live there any more, and wanted to get out.

Betty knew she had property available for her to use, but she didn’t have a plan, just her instincts. She started asking each of the people that had approached her three questions: Do you want to move? If you want to move with me, can you follow the rules that will be there? What will you contribute each day, because you can’t just sit around?

Betty knew twenty of these people well. She took these men and women aside the next day and talked with them. She said they would have to learn to be independent if they moved to this property, and support each other, because she couldn’t be there all of the time. She would provide their food and their needs, but she needed people she could trust to provide the leadership. It didn’t mean they had any power over anyone else. She just needed them to be her eyes and ears when she wasn’t there. Betty told each of them that if they wanted to do this, then she would first have them move in with former homeless people for two to four weeks. They needed to disconnect from their homeless identity, build up their self-esteem, and learn how to believe in themselves and make good judgment calls.

The next day, when she talked with this group, 18 out of 20 of them felt like they were ready to be leaders, and were willing to move in with a host family, live by their rules, and contribute to the household. The other two were honest and said they didn’t feel like they were ready. Betty thanked them for their honesty, understanding that it was a fear of failing that held them back. She told them they could still come and help when the time came, helping them feel good about their honesty, and knowing their own limits. So Betty moved 18 people in with host families for two weeks, while she was out of town. After the first week, two of them moved out, questioning their ability to be leaders. But the rest stuck with it.

When Betty returned, she checked in with the host families to see how the other 16 individuals did. She noticed that each person had changed a lot. In just two weeks, they had gained self-confidence and independence. Then Betty had all 20 of these people stay for a week by themselves on the property. They met with the landowner, and Betty met with the neighbors, letting them know what would be happening.

After a week, she brought the first group of 45 people up to the property. The landowner provided two B&B toilets. Betty provided brand new tents, sleeping bags and pads. She wanted this to feel like a fresh start for each of these people. Betty went around and talked with each person, asking them questions, and she had a helper record their names and their answers. She asked them:
1. How long have you been in Humboldt County?
2. Why are you here?
3. What is your plan?
4. Where did you come from?
5. Do you want to go home?

One week later she asked each person the same questions again. If an individual still wanted to go home, Betty started making phone calls to social services and nonprofits in each of their hometowns. She asked if they had a place to put someone, if Betty provided the bus ticket home. She told them to look her up on the Internet, to know that she was sincere, and then call her back if they wanted to help her. In the first six weeks, at least 38 people went home to organizations in their own cities. At first, Betty called weekly to check up on them. Then she called bi-weekly, and now she calls every three weeks, just so they know someone still cares about them. No one has returned yet.

In October, the weather turned really bad, and Betty added 40 more people to the newly formed community on the property. Now there were over 100 people there. And things were going really well. The camp was very peaceful, they kept the place clean, and kept to a routine. They felt secure, there was no need to hide, no yelling, and they could get a good night’s sleep. Everyone looked for a job, too. If Betty found an employer, people would leave the property and come into town to fill out applications.

Many of the people got jobs. As they found work, three to four people would group together by their own choosing, and move into a place together. One man held a job for four months, and told Betty that he had finally earned enough to return to Florida. He knew he could have asked Betty for a bus ticket, but he wanted to earn it himself. Betty told the landowner this story, and he cried. He was amazed at how the people living on the property supported each other. Betty had once again helped create a sense of community among the homeless, and they were blossoming.

While all of this was going on, Betty was experiencing a lot of anxiety, wondering what she had done. She had no budget to feed these people that were now dependent on her, and no time. She had put this on her own shoulders, acting on instinct, without a plan. Betty’s December fundraiser to help purchase a Family Shelter building was also underway. It was very hard to help deal with the details of the fundraiser when she had an additional 100 people that were dependent on her every day. Yet, when total strangers from the community started stepping up to help out with the fundraiser, Betty’s morale was really boosted. Knowing that people believed in what she was doing gave her courage, inspired her, and helped her learn to believe in herself.

Currently, in early February of 2016, there are only 21 people left living at the camp. Betty figures that she will be able to close down the camp within a month. She believes that this whole experience happened at the right time, in the right place. It has taught her, as well as many of the people that moved to the camp, that you have to believe in yourself and follow your heart. Betty showed them, through example, that you have to take action to make changes. We each have the power to change our own life. But having people that believe in us makes it a whole lot easier.