Contra Costa-based shelter helps the homeless become self-sufficient and to obtain and retain stable housing.
By RACHEL HEIMANN MERCADER | Bay Area News Group
It was one thing after another. Lea Esqueda had two little mouths to feed, along with her aging mother, when she lost her job.
Esqueda found brief refuge at an aunt’s house until her sudden passing. But she was unable to keep up with the utility bills, the electricity was shut off and PG&E told her it wasn’t safe to stay.
Next thing she knew she was offered a spot in a homeless shelter, taken to a big room with multiple other families in it. There were only so many beds, so her family slept on the floor.
“It all happened so fast,” Esqueda said. “It’s kind of hard to look for a job when you’re trying to figure out where, you know, you’re going to live.” Knowing in her heart that her children and her mother deserved better, she called 211.
She was connected with Bill Shaw, executive director of Winter Nights Family Shelter, and that same night, they were taken in.
“I owe them everything, we wouldn’t have survived without them,” Esqueda said.
Through the East Bay Times’ annual Share the Spirit campaign, which highlights nonprofit organizations serving our most vulnerable communities, Winter Nights Family Shelter hopes to raise $20,000. This amount would help families move into permanent housing by covering rental deposits, and pay for temporary motel stays for families sleeping in vehicles.
In the Winter Nights family shelter program, Esqueda and her family rotated every two weeks to a new location at a partnering faith community or church in central Contra Costa.
More than that, the organization also offered her kids tutoring, rides to school, a sense of security and dignity. When her mother began needing dialysis, they drove her to appointments while Esqueda worked with a life coach to come up with a game plan and secure a job.
After five months in the program, Esqueda got a job as a paralegal at a Walnut Creek law firm and soon after was able to afford a place of her own.
The concept of Winter Nights began 19 years ago as the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County responded to a growing need for resources for homeless families and seniors.
The congregations brought food and shelter, while the organization of Winter Nights hired staff to provide supervision and services around the clock. Two years ago, Winter Nights spun off to become its own non-profit organization.
Besides resources and services, money raised by the organization also goes toward a fund used to pay for items such as driver’s license fees, car registration, or security deposit for a new apartment, said Ann Lawrence, treasurer for Winter Nights.
“We believe this is really critical, a little bit of financial help makes such a big difference,” she said.
Four years ago, Winter Nights kicked off its Safe Parking Program for individuals and families living in their cars.
People accepted into the program sleep in their cars at night in the parking lot of a church in Pittsburg. During the day, they can go to work or take advantage of all the resources and services offered to those staying at the shelter.
Rick Felix was there for two months this summer after he found himself unable to find an affordable place to rent with the money he makes as a freelance photographer. He called around to county and city departments, but had no luck.
“They were so overloaded. That’s why when I found out about Winter Nights, it was the best thing that could ever happen,” Felix said.
He arrived at the lot one night in his Volkswagen, feeling defeated. With no money in his bank account and barely a gallon of gas left in his tank, he knew he was stuck.
The organization gave him a $200 gas card, which allowed him to continue to look for other jobs.
“People have a saying, ‘the struggle is real,’ but I don’t think most people really get what this struggle is like,” Felix said, adding that Winter Nights gets it. “If that program could get more funding, and get more help to do exactly what they did with me, it would be amazing.”
How to Help
Donations will help families move into permanent housing by covering rental deposits, and pay for temporary motel stays for families sleeping in vehicles.
Donate To Share the Spirit DONATE