Simpson shelter is here to stay

Angela Hernandez-Negron (r) talks with her friend Jo Ann Johnson at Simpson Housing Services shelter in Whittier.
Angela Hernandez-Negron (r) talks with her friend Jo Ann Johnson at Simpson Housing Services shelter in Whittier.

“You could lose those toes,” said Shelter Manager Robert Hofmann, inviting a man with frostbitten, black toes to sleep inside Simpson Church. He circulated through the shelter on a recent January night, grabbing soap from a supply closet, interviewing a job candidate and chatting with residents while volunteers prepared dinner.

Hofmann said he’s feeling more confident about the 66-bed shelter’s future. As land becomes increasingly more valuable around Simpson, located at 28th Street & 1st Avenue South, the shelter now has more certainty that it will remain in place for years to come.

Simpson United Methodist Church, where members are declining, has decided to gift the building to the shelter’s nonprofit. The transaction only became possible in 2015, when the City Council voted to allow shelters outside downtown to exist separately from religious institutions. Now, Simpson staff members are mulling whether to renovate the building or consider new construction. They would continue to operate the church food pantry, and church members would continue to worship onsite for the foreseeable future, said Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing Services. Horsfield said he doesn’t expect to expand the number of people they serve, currently 44 men and 22 women.

Carlyle Bowker, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, said he needs to stay alert all night at other shelters, but at Simpson he feels comfortable taking medication to help him sleep.

“I feel safe here, compared to other shelters I’ve been at,” he said.

Several residents said the food at Simpson is the best of any shelter — volunteers peek at other groups’ menus to try to best them. A favorite group is the Tzu Chi Foundation, which rolls scratch-made eggrolls by hand.

Simpson recently held a wake and funeral for Adalberto P. Morillo, a former resident who died Dec. 30.

“He’s the kind of person who would give you the shirt off his back or give you the last dime, if he had a last dime,” said his girlfriend Angela Hernandez-Negron, a Simpson resident who said she never lets anyone see her cry.

She’s preparing to work as a security guard at the Super Bowl.

“This is a family here, wonderful people,” she said.

Residents stay at Simpson without strings attached, so long as they follow a basic code of conduct. They arrive at 5 p.m. and eat dinner together at 7 p.m. Alumni with apartments of their own often return for dinner as well. Hofmann said they serve as role models for people working to get back on their feet, and in return, Simpson provides a supportive community and a free meal as people move on.

“It’s a lot easier to keep someone in housing than to get back into housing,” Hofmann said. “For a lot of people, their biggest resource is each other.”

Lights-out is 9 p.m. Residents sleep in the same bed each night, and use a locker to store belongings.

“They know where they’re sleeping, and they know the person above them,” Hofmann said.

Staff work with residents to get their paperwork in order and help them find a permanent housing solution, and Hofmann said the process can take 120-150 days.

The shelter launched in the winter of 1981 — legend has it that while men sought permission from City Hall, the women went ahead and invited people inside. Hofmann said he doesn’t think they ever envisioned the shelter would be around so long.

Simpson 3

“The need stayed, so the shelter stayed,” he said.

The nonprofit formed in the early 90s, and the emergency shelter has become a small facet of the work done by Simpson Housing Services, which keeps offices at 2100 Pillsbury Ave. S. Simpson subsidizes supportive housing across the metro for 210 families and up to 100 single adults, expanding at a rate of about 15 percent each year.

In overhauling the shelter space, Horsfield said they could look at more spaces tailored for seniors or young people. They could also deepen relationships with groups that visit on a weekly basis, such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, nurses, a chiropractor and psychologist.

“For a lot of people, this experience is an experience of uncertainty,” Hofmann said, explaining that people who become homeless can become so focused on survival they live only in the present. “Maybe there’s a metaphor in there for us too. We realize now, we have this foundation. … It’s a foundation for dreaming.”

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