If you wonder how the homeless try to stay cool on a 100-degree day, just ask Michelle Whittaker.
“I know what it is like,” Whittaker said. “You wait until a homeowner leaves and then you go up and use their garden hose to shower.’
Whittaker knows the ins and outs of living on the streets of Manteca. She did it for 7½ years.
“I was an addict,” she said.
Today the 38-year-old is one of HOPE Ministries many success stories. She works as an outreach case worker for the non-profit family shelter that will mark its 25th anniversary next year. She also works side-by-side with Manteca Police in trying to help the homeless break their cycle. It’s the same law enforcement agency that she had run ins with for years due to her former drug addiction. They are the ones who sent her to county jail. And they are the ones that she credits for “talking her” back into living.
Several of those arresting officers that Whitaker hasn’t seen for years will be on hand for a unique reunion when HOPE Ministries and Raymus Homes conduct the annual donor appreciation night on Thursday, July 13, at 5 p.m. at the MRPS Hall, 133 M Grant St., Manteca. There are 90 tickets at $60 apiece left. They are available at www.hopefamilyshelters.org or by calling 209.665.7640.
The doors open at 5 p.m. on July 13 There will be a four-course meal served. Sponsorship opportunities are still available for the event.
Whitaker is the guest speaker for the evening that will honor the Manteca Police Department. She was once a client of HOPE Family Shelters along with her children. The organization helped get her back on track. She ended up volunteering and going to college. Today she is part of the small, yet effective staff that has helped house 285 people in the past year — families and mothers with children — as well as do outreach with homeless single adults that have no shelter options in Manteca. Besides sheltering families and single moms with children, HOPE ministries has a solid track record of teaching living skills, money management and budget, and providing counseling as needed. That’s in addition to being effective at helping clients secure permanent housing.
On July 13, Whitaker will tell of her firsthand experiences, her struggles, her successes, and how the year-old Manteca Police outreach has made a big difference on the streets.
Whitaker is the daughter of a pastor who attended Shasta School before graduating Manteca High. She ended up on the streets at age 25 where she stayed for 7½ years.
Her “home” was Library Park. During her times on the street she lived in the notorious “Tweaker Towers” — a second floor collection of old-style single room apartments in downtown — as well as the Moffat Boulevard trailer park that deteriorated into a flophouse of sorts until it was closed and the trailers removed.
She is well aware of homeless territories noting she stayed away from those hanging around Northgate Park who tend to be a rougher crowd.
Whitaker is fairly effective at helping steer homeless into recovery programs. It’s not as much that she is persistent but not pushing as the fact she has street cred in Manteca.
She’s taken many a shower using a garden hose she’s been able to temporarily commandeer when homeowners were away. She knows what it is like to try to find a place to sleep and address personal hygiene. She knows what it is like to deal with the heat, the freezing cold, and the rain. That’s because she was homeless and not just for a few days.
When she tells a homeless person, “dude, aren’t you getting tired of this,” Whitaker hits a nerve because they know she’s been there and is no longer doing that.
Whitaker calling the Manteca Police effort in tackling homeless issues with a community resource officer “huge” for good reason. Not only has the MPD effort managed to get close to 100 homeless people into recovery programs, shelters, help them land jobs, or reunite them with relatives willing to take them in but it has gotten two individuals off the street that Whitaker and others though would never happen. Both had been homeless for more than 20 years.
Whitaker — who is part of the Celebrate Recovery effort — said many homeless who are still on the streets now are attending the weekly gatherings. That’s in addition to traditional 12-step programs. None of that was happening over a year ago.
“They address hurts, habits, and hang ups,” she noted.
She said the homeless effort has been appreciated by many on the street who now believe people care about them.
That is why month after month of asking whether it’s time for them to change things that many have ended up taking the first big step. That first big step is taking the business card that is in virtually every homeless individual’s pocket in Manteca and calling community resource officer Mike Kelly and saying they’re ready to be helped.
As for herself, Whittaker said if it wasn’t for the Manteca Police officers who she dealt with when addiction controlled her life and the help she received from HOPE ministries six years ago she would not be speaking before what hopefully will be a crowd of 240 on July 13 turning out to support efforts to help homeless Manteca families.
“I’d be in prison of dead,” Whitaker said.