The Gift of Second Chances

By Amy Nilson March 15, 2011 09:17

The Medinas and grandchildren

Most people avoid Tuolumne County’s homeless camps, the ones tucked out of sight along railroad tracks or up well-worn trails.

Bobby Medina seeks them out – he knows many there by name, and on cold, rainy nights, will often make the rounds to offer a warm bed and hot meal.

Sometimes they come. Often they don’t.

Medina, 58, and his wife, Beki, 61, have made helping outcasts the focus of their lives.

Eight years ago, they founded a small nonprofit, We Care Sober Living Recovery Homes, dedicated to running group homes for parolees, recovering addicts, mentally ill offenders – the hard cases, often older, single men who are last on the priority list for shelters and other assistance programs.

“The majority of these have been turned away everywhere else…and they’ve burned all their bridges,” Bobby says. “But you can’t give up on them…I just remember what I was like, and I got another chance.”

A recovering addict and former hard-core felon himself, Bobby is living a remarkable turnaround story.

He grew up on the streets of San Jose, a gang member as long as he can remember, hooked on heroin and other drugs, in and out of group homes all of his childhood and in and out of prison from the age of 17 for charges ranging from robbery and drugs to attempted murder. His life changed forever 21 years ago, with one choice offered by a judge.

“It was 25 years, or get in at Delancey Street,” Bobby recalls. “That saved me.”

The Delancey Street Foundation was a dramatically different kind of rehab program – a home in San Francisco built and run by recovering addicts, where residents stay for at least three years. They clean up, learn new job skills and work every day either out in the community or in one of the program’s several thriving businesses, including a moving company, restaurant and bakery. Once admitted, residents can stay as long as they follow the rules.

Bobby started with a three-day stint on a bench outside the front door.

“I showed up high, with all my tattoos, and this long, long mustache.

“They didn’t want me – left me out there all day and all night for three days, going through heroin withdrawals …On the third day, they let me in, made me shave and put me in a polyester suit. They clean you up from the outside in.”

Over the next few months, he worked with counselors and started through the program, learning job skills and trying a wide range of new experiences aimed at changing how he saw himself.

The process transformed him, as he moved from new resident to seasoned mentor. Eventually, after years in the program, he was invited to lead a new drug program working with inmates at the Sierra Conservation Center near Jamestown.

That’s where he met Beki in 2001, when she was working in a different department. The two couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds. He has a rap sheet that goes on for pages. She grew up in Twain Harte, daughter of a teacher and bookkeeper – her dad, Jim Sells Sr., taught at Summerville High. Beki worked in the title industry for years before switching careers to work with people with addictions.

Despite their differences, Bobby and Beki had an instant connection, and married a year later. It’s a match that surprised their families and friends. But the two shared deep convictions, along with a deep frustration with the revolving door they saw for inmates. So many are back just months after they are released because they have nowhere to live a sober lifestyle and no chance to get back on their feet. So the Medinas decided to do something about it, using their connections with SCC and all that Bobby knew from Delancey Street.

They started with one parolee, and built up the program a little at a time, expanding to work with other people unable to live alone. Their efforts are embraced by the courts and encouraged by some local agencies that work with difficult clientele. But the Medinas have their detractors in the social services realm, too, with whom the unapologetically blunt Bobby has fought over individual client’s cases.

“Not everybody likes me,” Bobby adds quickly. “I’ve bumped heads with some. I have to do things my way.”

But the need for this kind of group home has been sorely lacking in the foothills, especially for people with any kind of criminal record.

“They’re accepting of people wherever they are in their life story,” says Beetle Barbour, housing resources director for the Amador Tuolumne Community Action Agency. “No other social services entity around here is doing that…I wish We Care had 20 homes in the foothills. It’s an enormous need.”

Barbour says it’s especially tough for older men, who typically aren’t accepted at family shelters or the small number of group homes. And it’s a chronic problem. Community surveys year after year show nearly one in four homeless people in the foothills is over age 50.

We Care once had eight homes in Tuolumne, Calaveras and Amador counties, serving both men and women in recovery. Each had an appointed house manager, and residents could stay as long as they followed the rules. Each was nearly self-supporting, and the Medinas both worked outside jobs to cover shortfalls, never taking compensation. The Sonora Area Foundation helped with occasional grants, and has remained supportive.

Neighbors upset about the homes and the behavior of their residents sometimes complained to landlords and the Medinas, but those complaints were usually resolved and not a factor in the closures, Beki says.

But the recession took a heavy toll, both on funding sources and on the Medina family’s finances. Treatment programs can’t offer even minimal help right now, and utilities and other costs have gone up. So despite the huge need, they’re back down to one home now, in downtown Tuolumne. It serves eight men and longtime house manager Geraldo Ochoa, all of them over 50.

Jeff Mercer, 62, is the oldest resident there. A former river rafter, he’s in a wheelchair after a stroke five years ago, and credits Geraldo for keeping a good atmosphere at the Tuolumne house.

“He’s a good cook, that’s a big part of it,” Jeff jokes. “And he keeps everyone in line.”

Fellow resident Steve Tippett, 54, agrees.

“Everybody here helps each other,” he said, “and if I weren’t here I’d be on the street. I can’t live there.”

The Medinas are determined to keep the Tuolumne house running while they regroup.

“We have always worked other jobs so we could cover expenses at the houses,” Beki says, “but it’s cost us everything.”

They lost their own home to foreclosure last year. Bobby, a transit driver for many years, had to take a job transfer out of the area. Beki lost her job at a title company and is halfway through a graduate internship program in social work. And they’re now raising three of Bobby’s granddaughters, all in grade school.

Beki hopes things will improve when she gets her degree, and that they’ll be able to re-establish more homes. But for now, the grandchildren are a top priority. They have little contact with their mother, Bobby’s daughter.

“She’s still on a different path,” Beki says. “She told Bobby she might have turned out differently if he had been around more. He tells her ‘I can’t change the past but you can change your future.’ He’s changed a lot of futures.”

Medina with residents of the Tuolumne home: Steve McFarlan (left), Steve Tippett, Geraldo Ochoa, Randy Burdan and, seated, Jeff Mercer

Bobby is open about his own past, but he would rather talk about the residents at We Care. He has a strong connection to these men – and they trust him when they won’t even speak to anyone else.

He tells the stories of men like “Railroad Bob,” an older, homeless alcoholic who had been in and out of We Care homes over the years. Bobby came across him one day sitting on the pavement outside a local grocery store. Bobby said a quick hello, then saw him still there several hours later.

“He told me he couldn’t walk,” Bobby recalls. “So I picked him up and took him to the house we had in Soulsbyville. He said he knew he was dying, but he sure would rather be with people he knew.”

He did pass away a couple of months later, from complications of so many years of heavy drinking, but he’s remembered by the other We Care residents.

“He had nowhere else,” Beki says. “We get a lot of guys like that.”

“We won’t turn them away,” Bobby adds. “We might kick them out for a few days when they break the rules, but we always give them another chance.”

We Care gives some support and guidance to help residents who want to move forward with their lives. They have success stories – residents who were able to stay sober, get jobs or businesses back, repay child support, reconnect with children or other family.

The Medinas get letters and calls from people Bobby helped in the past. That’s what they hope for – but for most residents, it’s a painful process.

“Success,” Beki says, “is when they can come out of their room for a little bit, share a meal, talk to people.”

“They come in addicts,” Bobby says. “And this isn’t the Betty Ford Clinic – like they say in Delancey Street, Harvard takes the top 10 percent, and we take the bottom 10 percent.”

© 2011 Friends and Neighbors

By Amy Nilson March 15, 2011 09:17