Aspiring to repurpose big box stores into homeless transitional housing

Posted at 10:12 PM, Feb 03, 2020

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Christina Gutierrez spent a year of her life on the streets of Southern California.

“My homelessness started with drugs," Christina Gutierrez said. "Within a year, I lost everything. I lost a place to live, I lost my job, I lost my car, my son had to go live with his dad. And before I knew it, I was literally homeless on the streets of San Bernardino at the time.”

She says she was sleeping behind grocery stores, eating out of dumpsters and doing things she never imagined just to make money.

“It’s scary. You know... it’s cold, it’s trying to find somewhere to go to the restroom, trying to find somewhere to go and get food. Just the simple things in life that we take for granted,” Gutierrez said.

She says her 11-year-old son was her motivation to make a change and she decided to start a program at the Long Beach Rescue Mission.

“Long Beach Rescue Mission is a place of healing and hope serving the greater Long Beach community by improving the quality of life of people who are lost, hurting and homeless,” Long Beach Rescue Mission Executive Director Robert Probst said.

In its 47th year, Executive Director Robert Probst says the Long Beach Rescue Mission is running out of space to care for women and children in need. He’s very passionate about providing a place where all people can have the opportunity to better their lives.

“What I’m concerned about is how our society will start being complacent and think it’s just a norm. It’s a life choice to live on the sidewalk, live on the streets, live in a tent. It’s not,” Probst said.

So the Long Beach Rescue Mission teamed up with KTGY – an architecture firm – to sketch out a space to be built over the vacant lot neighboring the women’s facility. They’re calling it: The Lighthouse.

“Our hope is to be able to build a three-story facility with 44 more beds,” Probst sad.

One use of the building will be for the mission’s transitional housing program where people who have experienced homelessness slowly transition into independent living.

“I was able to save some more money. I was able to slowly go back into the work force and not feel like – just because I finished my program, okay here go get a full-time job go to school – ya know I had been out of it so long that the transitional housing helped me ease into it,” Gutierrez said.

The Lighthouse inspired KTGY to come up with another idea: With a greater need for transitional housing, and so many vacant big box stores, why not repurpose some of those stores into transitional housing communities? They’re calling that concept "Re-Habit."

“There’s a big box of four walls and a shelter. Why can’t we just move people in there?” KTGY Principal David Senden said.

There would be sleeping rooms, retail stores to work in, support programs, and a dining hall. But right now it’s just an idea and more needs to happen before a it can become a reality.

“I mean this takes a lot of political will," Senden said. "It’s gonna take a landowner with some motivation. It’s gonna take a lot of people coming together as a coalition to make something like this happen.”

All agree it’s a great concept, but it’s not the design that’s the complicated part. It’s the program. Probst believes everyone should be assessed before going into the community, because some are ready for it and others aren’t. Gutierrez says it should be a healthy place to live and work until the people can find permanent housing.

“There’s structure, there’s case management, there’s an itinerary for them to follow so they can better themselves,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez knows the benefit of transitional housing. She’s part of the 87.5 percent success-rate of people who have graduated the program and are now in independent living.

“Since she graduated our program and turned her life around, she got married, she has a little girl, she’s a great parent, she’s a great mentor, a great wife and a great employee so she’s the epitome of success,” Probst said.

While working at the mission as a program coordinator, Gutierrez is also training to become a certified drug and alcohol counselor. She hopes to show others they don’t have to stay homeless forever.

“How could I not give back to the place that gave so freely to me,” Gutierrez said.