Share the Spirit: Winter Nights family shelter helps a mother turn her life around

PLEASANT HILL — Ametiszt Hajdu was in a bad place.

She had gotten hurt at her job, then hooked on the painkillers that were prescribed to help her deal with the injury.

“I lost my job, my apartment, my car — everything — and I was living under the bridge or in the creek for many, many years,” she remembers.

She quit the drugs once she became pregnant, but her living situation was still quite dire after her daughter Adelynn Island was born.

“We were living in an abandoned house that had no ceiling, no roof — it had rats and all kinds of yucky stuff,” she says.

They went to live with a relative for awhile, but found themselves out on the streets again after plans to move into an abandoned RV fell through.

Fortunately, Hajdu then learned about the Winter Nights Family Shelter, which would help get her back on her feet by providing emotional, financial and housing support. These days, Hajdu and her daughter — now 4 years old — have a place of their own to call home in Pleasant Hill.

“All of this is possible because I was at Winter Nights shelter and they helped me get my car fixed, they helped me keep up with my job,” Hajdu says. “I cannot put it in words what they have done for us.”

Hajdu and her daughter are among the more than 1,200 people that the Pleasant Hill-based Winter Nights has provided shelter since it was founded in 2004. The nonprofit draws on the help of 60-plus churches and faith congregations, which host the shelter spaces on a rotating basis, typically for two weeks at a time.

“The basic mission is to serve and provide for the needs of people who are unhoused – living couch-surfing, in their cars, whatever – and to help them work towards stable housing,” says Ann Lawrence, volunteer for donor development/community relations. “We spend a lot of time on what is officially called client management services – but it’s really being counselors to parents and individuals to say, ‘What’s keeping you from being stably housed? And let’s put a plan together for you to work on fixing that.’”

The issue might be not having a driver’s license or some other transportation related problem that is making it difficult to get to work. It could be that a family has had previous evictions and can’t find anyone willing to rent to them. Once identified, those kinds of problems can be tackled head on with the help of Winter Nights.

“We really try to put them in the position of being in the driver’s seat and us being the support group, because those are skill sets that will serve them well once they are housed and they hit bumps in the road – how do you deal with Social Security, the DMV, all those kinds of things,” Lawrence says. “One of our unique aspects is we really work with them to develop the skills to care for themselves and their families.”

Winter Nights Family Shelter has received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual holiday campaign that serves residents in need in the East Bay. Donations will help support 56 nonprofit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties.

Winter Nights plans to use its grant to support its long-running shelter operation held at churches and other faith organizations, plus two (comparatively) newer programs.

One of those is the Winter Nights Continued Success Program, which helps families after they have departed from the shelter. The organization works to stay in touch with these families, doing follow-ups and seeing if there is anything that they need. The goal, as stated in the program’s name, is “Continued Success” and that translates to proactively dealing with any potential problems that might cause them to lose housing again.

“Keeping them housed is a lot easier than picking them back off the streets because they got evicted,” Lawrence says. “We’ve found that a car breaking down and needing $800 in car repair can cause them to lose their housing because dad can’t get to work, mom can’t get to work, they get behind in their rent – they get evicted.”

Then there’s the Safe Parking Program, which provides a much-needed safe (and monitored) haven for many families who are living in their cars.

“The main goal is to give people peace of mind so they can sleep at night and have that full rest,” says Heather Aguilar, who works for the Safe Parking Program. “When you are out there on the streets and you are homeless you don’t get real sleep, so it’s hard to have your mind functioning on all cylinders. Once we get them on all cylinders, it’s just about getting them back to a place where they feel like they have hope.”

That’s not just a theory for Aguilar – she’s actually lived it. Before she was an employee of the Safe Parking Program, she was a client. And she remembers what it was like living out of her car with her son Gage and being afraid of what might happen to them at any moment. Getting to move into Winter Nights’ Safe Parking Program made a huge difference for the family.

“It was just to know that we’re safe,” she said. “Nobody is going to harass me. No cops were going to mess with me. No weirdos are going to come up to my car. There are just so many various things that can occur that run through your mind when you are out there on the streets. It was terrifying – until I got into these programs.”

Aguilar and her 8-year-old son now have a place to call their own in Concord — and she gets to help others try and achieve similar results through her work at Winter Nights.

“I got a lot of that support when I was in the program. And I wanted to be able to give that back,” she said. “Sometimes all they need is a little bit of faith and a little bit of believing in them so that they can believe in themselves again.”

Share the Spirit

The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities for residents in need by funding nonprofit holiday and outreach programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. To make a tax-deductible contribution, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate. Readers with questions, and individuals or businesses interested in making grants or contributions, may contact the Share the Spirit program at 925-655-8355 or [email protected]

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