Carol Brown perched on the edge of the bed in the small Motel 6 room, shaking her head as she reflected on the past year.
“We didn’t expect to lose everything,” she said. “We went through hell.”
Across from her, David Jungclaus reclined on the opposite bed with his hand resting on his ribs, three of which he believes were broken in a fall the other day. He’s also suffering from cancer.
The couple has been homeless for more than a year, after the two-bedroom house they were renting in Grover Beach and all their possessions burned in a fire in March 2014.
Since then, they’ve been searching for permanent housing, using their Social Security and disability payments to live in motel rooms and sleeping in their SUV when money ran out.
By chance, they got in touch earlier this year with Dee Torres, a volunteer with SLO Housing Connection, a new nonprofit founded last summer with a focus on finding housing for homeless individuals and families.
Torres, former director of homeless services for the nonprofit Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, is one of several local activists involved in SLO Housing Connection.
Torres has been working with the couple to connect them with services while searching for funds to keep them in temporary housing, with some money coming from the new organization.
Just this week, the couple received some good news: They received a housing voucher from the Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo. Now, the challenge is finding available housing, or a landlord who will take it.
“It’s been months of us pounding down these doors,” Torres said.
SLO Housing Connection aims to help those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless and “have exhausted standard available resources,” according to its website.
The nonprofit’s organizers, which include Mary Parker, board president of The People’s Kitchen of San Luis Obispo, filed incorporation papers with the secretary of state in June and registered SLO Housing Connection as a charity with the state Attorney General’s Office in July.
“We follow a housing first model and do all we can to get people off the streets as quickly as possible and then wrap services around them,” Torres said.
She said the organization has helped to permanently house 10 people, including four children; helped to temporarily house more than 30 people; helped more than 25 families who were at risk of becoming homeless maintain their housing and help them budget and pay off debt, secure employment, or other needs.
The nonprofit “complements other homeless service providers by adding to the pool of resources,” Torres said.
Torres, who sued CAPSLO in October, declined to discuss that organization or details of her lawsuit.
Torres filed a whistleblower lawsuit in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, claiming she was the victim of retaliation after expressing concerns over the safety of her staff and homeless clients.
The lawsuit claims workplace problems started after Torres began documenting and reporting safety concerns in October 2013, and culminated with her demotion in March 2014 to a manager position.
CAPSLO officials told The Tribune it had demoted three employees, prompted by an ongoing deficit at the two shelters. In May 2014, Grace McIntosh, deputy director of CAPSLO, reported to media that Torres was on paid administrative leave, according to the lawsuit.
The Tribune reported that she was on a leave of absence that month.
Torres declined to confirm her employment status with CAPSLO, but said she is not receiving any compensation or benefits from the organization.
CAPSLO Chief Operating Officer Jim Famalette also declined to comment on Torres’ employment status, citing the ongoing litigation.
Attorneys for CAPSLO have refuted her claims; a case-management conference is set for July 27.
Torres said she became an official volunteer with SLO Housing Connection in March, though she was involved with developing the initial concept of the organization.
The website lists five board members — Parker, the board president; Vice President Toni Kincaid, a People’s Kitchen volunteer; Secretary Lois Crotser, a People’s Kitchen board member; and Sofi Torres, a Cuesta College student who will attend Cal Poly in the fall to study psychology. Antonette L. Higgins, listed as treasurer, said she has resigned for personal reasons.
Parker said in an email that the group is all-volunteer and is in the process of reorganizing.
Torres, who is married to San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill, said Hill is not involved in the organization.
Parker said the organization has raised more than $8,000 through donations and fundraising events. In addition, developer Gary Grossman of Coastal Community Builders committed $50,000 last September, according to his attorney, Marshall E. Ochylski.
“We understand our dollars will be used for noncompeting services with a focus on the needs of low-income and homeless individuals and families who have exhausted standard available resources and need shelter and support services as an avenue to self-sufficiency,” Grossman wrote in a letter to the organization.
'Filling in the gaps'
Torres said she views SLO Housing Connection’s role as “filling in the gaps and as a safety net to those who fall through the system.”
She said the nonprofit is not involved with the county’s 50Now program, launched in August, which aims to find permanent housing and services for 50 of the county’s most fragile homeless residents.
The San Luis Obispo County Department of Social Services surveyed 295 chronically homeless people to choose the 50 participants.
Torres said SLO Housing Connection is working with two clients who were either not part of the survey or not included on the 50Now list.
“There is a great need in our community for quick, meaningful responses which support people who are living on our streets and next to our creeks, as well as individuals and families who are at risk to becoming homeless,” Torres said. “We recognize that homelessness does not end at 5 p.m. or begin at 9 a.m. on weekdays.”
Jungclaus, a retired cement mason, and Brown had been living more than a dozen years in their Grover Beach rental home when the electrical fire left them homeless.
The search for new housing has been discouraging.
“We had a shih tzu, and they wouldn’t allow pets, or we’re disability and they couldn’t rent to us,” Brown said, listing problems the couple faced.
Jungclaus, 66, panhandled a few times to get money for a motel room.
“It’s awful,” Brown, 63, said of being homeless. “It’s humiliating, it’s degrading. I feel bad for homeless people because they’re really mistreated.”
Eventually, they met another homeless person who passed along Torres’ number.
“This has been the best month so far because Dee came along,” Jungclaus said. “I don’t know how to show that much gratitude.”
Torres said helping this couple and other clients has reinforced her belief that there are a lot of good programs in the area but there are gaps in the system, and homeless people often need help navigating through the services available.
“I feel like programs are overwhelmed with too many people,” Torres said, “and clients get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. We try to save our funding for last and work through other programs.
“It’s not what we do,” she added. “It’s who we help and how we help them. Our goal is to get them off the streets.”