Program gets them their own place

TURLOCK -- Like many folks, Robert Smithcamp doesn't look like the picture in his driver's license. The face staring off the license is gaunt and drawn, and looks like a man in his 60s.

Smithcamp today looks like the 48-year-old he is, with a quick smile and an energetic approach to everything. It's a change brought about by getting clean, getting off the streets and getting into his own place.

Smithcamp spent several years homeless after losing his job repairing air-conditioning units. Much of that time, he was drinking, smoking marijuana and using meth. And not much interested in anything else.

"You get so far down the hole, you can't see any light," he said. "All you think about is buying dope. It doesn't fix your problems, but it lets you get away from them."

Eventually, Smithcamp got clean -- "I still have the cigarettes, but I've been working on that," he said with a smile -- and he got help.

Smithcamp got his apartment through the Stanislaus County Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing program.

Coordinator Jan Tucker said she has put eight people into homes since the beginning of December. The program pays for a security deposit and several months' rent, and gives participants the tools to help them back on their feet.

"We do résumés, job skills, training," Tucker said.

The HPRP, as it's called, is part of an effort to do more than just shelter the homeless. In recent years, service providers -- public and private -- have focused their efforts on helping people on the verge of homelessness stay in their homes.

And for those who are already homeless, programs such as the HPRP guide them through the steps up -- from staying in a homeless shelter to a group home to employment and self-sufficiency.

Probing questions to answer

The program doesn't work for everyone. Tucker meets every other week with participants, who have to answer probing questions about their circumstances and work -- either at a job or at finding one.

"It's not for everybody," Tucker said. "Some people just aren't ready to not be homeless."

Janetta Yax was ready. She's among those Tucker has placed into an apartment. And though she's had some medical setbacks recently, she's pleased about what the future holds for her, for the first time in a long time.

The best part about having her own place?

"Having my own place."

For program participants, everything is a learning opportunity. This week, Smithcamp led a regular meeting of homeless people and service providers at the We Care shelter.

"Sometimes they're a little hesitant at first," said Bill Sturdevant, who runs We Care.

"It's getting up in front of their peers," Tucker said. "We are the same way." But each time it gets a little easier, and directing a meeting might lead to a more successful job interview.

Smithcamp ran a good show, moving swiftly through the agenda and letting everyone who had something to offer speak.

A program through Friends Outside is helping him look for a job. Smithcamp has felony convictions stemming from arrests for driving under the influence. He's working with the court system to get them expunged, but that won't happen until next year.

In the meantime, he's working part time for a property management company, fixing fences, painting homes and preparing them for new tenants. The work is spotty, but he's grateful for any opportunity.

Smithcamp fills his time volunteering with the We Care program that sheltered him for the winters and at church.

"He's there every week," said Brian Miller, pastor at Enclave Community Church. "And when we have a work day, he's the first one to show up and pitch in to help."

"The church has come to mean so much to me," Smithcamp said. "For a long time, I wasn't ready for it, but now I am."

He said after graduating from Turlock High School and going into sheet metal work, he'd drive by the church and see homeless people, waiting for services.

"I was making $36 an hour and I'd think, 'Get a job,' " he said.

But a longtime marijuana habit continued when Smithcamp got laid off from his air- conditioning unit repair job -- and led to more drug use. Then he lost his home and took to the streets.

"I dabbled into crack a little bit, and I got into meth," he said.

Smithcamp sees his old friends through his volunteer work, but he doesn't visit many of the same old haunts.

Facing a dilemma

"I want to stay in touch, but people tell me 'You don't belong around here no more,' " he said. "I don't want to rub it in their faces."

Still, Smithcamp said, he hopes to reach some of his old friends.

"Maybe by seeing me they could realize there is a chance to make life much better," he said.

And it is better.

Smithcamp has repaired a fractured relationship with his mother, who still lives in Turlock. He has impressed people such as Miller and Tucker with his work ethic and his positive attitude.

He's also determined to stay on the path he's found.

Even if he can't find a job and finds himself back on the streets, Smithcamp said, returning to drugs isn't an option.

"My faith will never allow me to do drugs again," he said. "I think I feel better now than I ever have in my whole life."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at or 578-2343.