They show up for a hot meal and a place to stay. That's the easy part.
The bigger challenge is in giving homeless people dignity and a chance to succeed on their own.
"It's great to be able to put a full plate of food in front of somebody," said Barbara Detherage, executive director of the Modesto Gospel Mission. "But to be able to give someone the tools they need to get food on their own is the cherry on top of the sundae."
Cold-weather shelters are beginning to open in Modesto and Turlock: The Salvation Army's winter shelter opened Nov. 1 in Modesto, We Care in Turlock opens its men's shelter tonight and the Turlock Gospel Mission starts its overnight service Nov. 14.
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With the ever-worsening economy, some of the places that care for the homeless are living hand-to-mouth themselves. In Turlock, the situation is made more challenging by a city that doesn't have a homeless plan in place.
"At one point last year, we had $150 in the bank and we needed $5,000 by Monday at noon to stay open another week," said Jeff Woods, Turlock Gospel Mission director. "At 11:45, I got two calls, one from a church that collected $5,000 for us and another from someone who wanted to give $1,000."
Donations are getting harder to come by at the same time the need is rising.
The shelters house many who have nowhere else to turn. On a recent Monday night, the crowd at Turlock Gospel Mission included Mario Gil, who was taking part in a sober-living program until "I had a beer," he said sheepishly. "I've been trying to get off it."
Most nights, Gil sleeps outside "where I can, by the bar."
People such as Gil aren't turned away from the mission, even if they're under the influence, Woods said. "As long as they can control themselves and not cause a problem, they're welcome to stay," Woods said. "And they can't drink during the hours they're here."
The Gospel Mission started its Turlock winter shelter for women and children last year; the We Care program houses men at its shelter on Broadway.
"This is their break," the Gospel Mission's Woods said. "On the street, they always have to watch their back and their stuff."
His program doesn't have a permanent home that can accommodate a shelter, so it moves among local churches. A meal service is offered year-round for men, women and children; people check in and leave their belongings in bins at the mission office, then head to a basement room to read, play games or take part in an optional Bible study. As with many services that help the homeless, the mission is faith-based, but it doesn't force people to take part in prayer or religious observances.
Volunteers greet those arriving with hugs and chatter. Most know each other by name; they ask about families and share puzzles and a lively game of Jenga.
About 6 p.m., a bus takes them to the host church for the evening, then returns for checkout by about 7:30 p.m. When the shelter opens, churches host the program for a week at a time.
Woods said the meal service has brought in 30 to 50 people every night since it started Jan. 14, 2008. Like most local advocates, he doesn't refer to participants as homeless or clients. They're guests.
"We spend the evening with our guests," Woods said. "It's important that we eat with them and talk with them and get to know each other."
Volunteers on Monday drove two busloads from the mission office to Monte Vista Chapel, where the group that was supposed to be responsible for the evening's meal was called away by an emergency. John Riedel, who handles homeless outreach for the chapel, brought in his friends, family and pizza.
Woods, a longtime pastor, said starting the program has changed his outlook.
"I no longer see 'homeless people' in town," Woods said. "I see Vern, I see Victoria, I see Vera."
And he sees Salsa.
Salsa Holquin, 52, and her boyfriend, Martín Flores, 45, are regulars at the meal service. The two have found a place to stay with friends for now, but they come to the mission almost nightly to get something to eat.
"We get treated real well here," said Holquin. "It's like a little family here."
Flores recently tested for a welding job, and Holquin would like to find work in a grocery store. She's done maintenance at the Stanislaus County Fair the past couple of years and hopes to work more fairs next summer if she doesn't get a permanent job.
In the meantime, the couple showers at the United Samaritans Foundation and spends a lot of time in the library.
"We don't give up," Flores said.
Maris Sturdevant, director of the We Care program, said that's the type of attitude advocates try to foster, even though it's harder in a difficult economy. We Care offers programs ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and job counseling to life skills classes.
"But it's hard to find a job for someone who hasn't worked in a few years when you have so many people who are well-qualified and have been employed looking for the same jobs," she said.
We Care, which formerly managed the city-owned shelter on B Street, opened its men-only facility last year. It can house up to 34 men and often operates close to capacity, Sturdevant said.
Turlock has a tumultuous history in dealing with its homeless population.
The Turlock City Council decided not to open a city shelter last year after nearby businesses objected to two suggested locations. It has a coalition working on long-term solutions. On Tuesday, the council will consider spending $40,000 to provide motel vouchers and counseling services for homeless families.
Woods said the lack of a permanent shelter has a positive side.
"I think God was wise in this," he said. Though his program is essentially transient, it offers church members an opportunity to help people somewhere they feel comfortable. "We're providing a safe experience for the church, and a lot of our guests get to know the churches and might start going there."
At Monte Vista Chapel, Riedel said, the program has benefited the church community as much as the homeless it serves.
"At the beginning of the night, the volunteers are reserved, and they hang back," he said. "But by the end of the evening, everyone is laughing and talking."
Woods said that interaction is vital.
"We realize that these people are no different from us," he said. "If you or I had to stay on the street in the same clothes for five days in a row, we wouldn't look or smell that great."
Or, as Detherage put it, "Nobody comes to the mission on a good day."
Health and hygiene, always a concern, is even more treacherous this year.
At The Salvation Army shelter, everyone who stays is required to take a shower; the flip-flops provided are sanitized after each use. Each person gets clean sheets every day and a chance to wash dirty clothes.
"We're not equipped to be a hospital, but we're setting up an isolation room for people who come in and are coughing," Maj. Darvin Carpenter said.
Lack of access to running water, poor nutrition and exposure to the elements can make people more susceptible to illness.
"We've already had swine flu in the building," Detherage said. "The health department warns us to be careful; we just assume everyone has everything."
Still, there are homeless people, such as Norma Garcia, who prefer to sleep outside.
The 44-year-old Turlock woman said she occasionally uses a shelter, but she comes to the Gospel Mission for meals.
"I stay outside somewhere I have permission," she said in Spanish. "But these are my friends, my family."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2343.