Last May, Police Chief Mills was talking with Betty about cleaning up the area behind the Bayshore Mall, where many homeless people camp. The chief asked Betty how many children lived out there. After this conversation, Betty decided to act on instinct and quickly move as many families as possible out of this area.
At the time, Betty said she had no idea what a big job she was taking on. She was fortunate to have funding from local churches to help pay for deposits and first months’ rent for these families, and landlords willing to rent apartments to her. Betty acted on faith, knowing she had the support of the community to make this possible.
With the help of a dedicated volunteer and some HSU students with trucks, Betty and her crew moved a total of 27 families into permanent housing within the course of a week. Each family was allowed to select what furniture and household goods they needed from Betty’s donated items. Betty said it was very emotional to watch these people struggle to figure out what they would need to build their own home. 20 out of the 27 families had never had a house of their own. Betty offered no advice, but instead told each family,“You have to build your own house. If I help you, then it is my house, and you are a guest in my house.”
The first months were the hardest on everyone. During the first month, Betty required that each family cut off all connections with their homeless friends. She asked them to focus on their own family, and figure ou tif this was the life they wanted. They were not allowed to smoke inside, and if they had a pet, they had to give it up. (One family failed miserably, feeling like they were in jail and had lost their freedom.) Betty spent an enormous amount of her own time and energy supporting these families, both emotionally and physically. She provided food for them, and took them shopping, helping them learn how to cook, and budget their money. Betty required that each family sit at the dinner table each night, spending time together. For many of the families, this was the first time they had ever spent time together as a family, and it was a challenge for them to learn how to sit together, seeing each other’s clean faces.
Betty said, “Watching their transformations during this first month was so painful. There was a lot of anxiety. They didn’t trust themselves or believe that they could do this. On the streets, when they were filthy, they could say whatever they wanted, because nobody listened. Now that they were cleaned up, people listened to them, and it was terrifying. What if they failed? When I saw a grown man crying, because he was afraid of failing…it was so hard. I wondered whether I was torturing them or helping them. Each time I left them I would cry, wondering if I was doing the right thing.”
Betty stopped by and checked on each family at least twice a week. She encouraged them to come up with a plan. But without Betty coming by to visit them, the families admitted that they wouldn’t have followed through with their plans. They knew that Betty had done so much for them, and they didn’t want to disappoint her. They needed guidance, someone that cared about them and held them accountable during this transition.
By the fourth month, Betty started seeing real progress in their transitions. She could see that the families wanted a better life, and were learning new skills. They were now hanging up their clothes, cooking their own dinners, and making their beds. When she left after a visit, she could see a difference in their smiles. Three of the families were able to pay back both the deposit and their first month’s rent.
Six months later, nine of the families have been able to pay Betty back. None of the families want to be homeless any more. 22 of the families now have at least one parent working full time. Betty didn’t tell them to get a job. They found the jobs themselves. Four of the families have part-time jobs, and may need assistance, due to anxiety or medical conditions. Each family now sits together at meals, and they have learned how to budget for themselves. Only one family has a T.V.
Betty said this has been the hardest thing she has ever done. She had no idea what she was in for when she acted on instinct back in May. “I never would have guessed the anxiety and struggle these people would go through. They had lost all faith in themselves. I give them a lot of credit. In a sense, they are ‘reborn’ in learning how to trust themselves.” It took a lot of tough love. Betty couldn’t feel sorry for them. She had to help them learn how to rebuild their hope, and learn how to believe in themselves.
Trust is the key ingredient here. Because each family trusted Betty, and knew that she believed in them, they learned to believe in themselves as individuals, and as a family. Betty supported them as a friend, helping them through the difficult transitions. They weren’t just another client on an overburdened case load. It was the personal connection, and Betty’s trust, that gave each family the strength to go forward when they didn’t think they could. Because Betty acted on her instincts, and invested many hours of love and support, over 100 people (including the children) have had their lives changed for the better.
This experience gave Betty the idea to open her own Family Shelter, providing temporary housing, respite care, and mentoring to families while they get back on their feet. This building will provide temporary housing for up to 14 families, furthering Betty’s mission of giving every person a second chance, and ending the cycle of homelessness, one family at a time. The Eureka Knights of Columbus are currently planning a fundraising event for Betty, with the goal of purchasing the building next door to the Betty Chinn Day Center and creating a place for families to transition out of homelessness.