CAMARILLO — Sheri Asbury's former way of life ended with a fall down a flight of stairs at her home.
After months of expensive medical care for a shattered wrist and shoulder, and late notices on bills she could not pay, Asbury lost her car and her job. She fell behind on her house payments, eventually losing her Simi Valley home as well.
Then she came here, to a bed in an aging one-story building that houses the River-Dwellers Aid Intercity Network, or RAIN, an innovative homeless center for children and adults.
Asbury, who worked for mortgage companies doing clerical work, said she never imagined that the term "homeless" would ever apply to her, or that it could happen to her with just one fall.
"You think about it because you hear it so often, but you still never believe you're going to be in that situation," Asbury said, her eyes looking far past the grassy, fenced backyard of the RAIN center near Camarillo Airport.
Initially formed to provide temporary assistance to river-bottom dwellers endangered by winter storms, the RAIN center is on the verge of becoming much more than a short-term solution.
County government backing has allowed it to extend beyond its original March 31 closing date, and administrators have applied for two three-year, $750,000 federal grants that would double the size of the program and make permanent the county's largest and most comprehensive homeless transition program.
If it receives funding, the center would move to a site capable of handling up to 120 people. Stays would be allowed for up to two years, although county homeless services coordinator Karol Schulkin estimated that most residents would end up staying six to 12 months.
Recent figures underscore the need for an expanded program, Schulkin said. This winter, 843 people crammed temporary winter shelters, an increase of 71 from the year before. The winter shelters housed 108 children, up nearly 500% from the previous year.
For the approximately 50 men, women and children who now depend on RAIN for shelter and rehabilitation, a permanent center would mean more than just a few more months to get back into the mainstream, Schulkin said.
It would be an extension of a family environment that has had its share of success stories.
Those stories, supporters and residents say, are based on the RAIN center's unique mix of care and responsibility, its willingness to provide all the tools--drug rehabilitation, day care, parenting classes, job training, basic nutrition--but leave it up to homeless participants to lift themselves.
The ambitious program also includes health screenings, English as a second language classes, school placement for children, after-school tutoring, literacy classes, a mandatory savings program and a pipeline to government aid programs.
"It's a one-stop shop," explained project manager Diana Vogelbaum. "We're pulling in every resource we can to assist these people."
After seven months in the center, former Simi Valley resident Asbury said she is putting her life together. She handles day care for the 18 children who call the RAIN shelter home. And, in accordance with center policies, she is saving money for her eventual return to a normal life.
She still has the scars from her fall, and always will, but they appear to be fading.
"A lot of families have come in and gotten housing certificates and moved out," she said. "I'm working on it, saving money, trying to get a car."
Tonya Castor, 23, a single mother who is nine months pregnant, said she came to the center to escape an abusive relationship.
"I had nowhere to go because my family was scared of him and his family," said Castor, holding her 1-year-old son, Daniel, in her lap. "I was out in the streets with nothing."
Castor, who moved from foster homes to girls' homes to group homes throughout her teenage years, came to the center in May. She and her son now share a small, neat room in the family wing of the building.
Castor said her new life with the RAIN project has been especially important for her son.
In the motels, "the baby had to be inside 24 hours a day," she said. "He never got a chance to play with other kids."
Her unborn child has also gotten help, now that Castor receives regular meals and enjoys a more peaceful environment.
Now, she said, "I'm not worried."
A Family Environment
Piles of colorful baby clothes, bottles and baby formula in a corner of Castor's room speak to another benefit of the center. Other residents recently gave her a baby shower, using the money they had saved for their move outside to make sure the baby and mother had a good start.
Hiedi Long, a single mother of three, is on her way up and out. She has found a house in Santa Paula that, thanks to federal support, will cost her only about $100 a month.
But Long said leaving the center is hard, too.
"We're all a family here," she said, taking a moment away from packing donated furniture and other possessions into a moving van. "It's going to hurt a lot to move out of here."