The Road to Success at Safe Harbor Shelter

SH Safe Harbor 35
Community Connections Blog Post 

Written By:  Mental Health Case Manager, Julia Parmer, MSW

Matt Swenson had led a relatively stable life in Redding for several years. In early 2014, he celebrated 5 years of living clean and sober, after a long period of struggling with an addiction that resulted in prison time. He had a son with his girlfriend and they lived together in her parents home. He worked hard as a temporary groundskeeper at a local veteran’s cemetery and was a doting father. But, when the mother of his son relapsed on drugs, he decided that he needed to make a change. She entered a treatment program, and Matt signed over temporary custody of his son to the grandparents. He decided then and there that he would leave town, find a place of his own, and save enough money to be a responsible single father to his son.

On the evening of October 29th, 2014, Matt packed a backpack, kissed his sleeping son goodbye, and headed out the door into the darkness. He stood out on Highway 5, thumb out, waiting to begin a new life. In short order, a van of four rowdy college kids who were just wrapping up a week of camping at Whiskeytown Lake, pulled over and rolled open the door. “Where ya going??” they asked. “Anywhere but here,” was Matt’s reply. They drove Matt all the way to Oakland and gave him enough money for BART fare. While on the road, they had called around to every shelter in the Bay Area, asking about availability. “Safe Harbor is where you want to go,” they determined. “South San Francisco. It’s the best place to get help.” Dutifully following their advice, Matt took BART to the SFO Airport. He showed up in South City and asked a man sitting on Grand Avenue where he could find “The Safe Harbor.” “Well hey brother!” came the friendly reply (from a man whom Matt would come to know as Marino, a Safe Harbor resident), “I’m on my way there myself! I’ll take you.”

Matt arrived at the shelter and introduced himself to Anje, our associate director. She agreed to put him on a cot for a few nights until he could get a proper referral from the YMCA. On his second day on a cot, Matt went to Labor Ready and signed up for temporary work. He started that very day and has not stopped working since then. He eventually landed a job with a demolition company run by an acquaintance he had met while attending Sunday services at a local South City church. Matt developed a case plan with his case manager Terrell; identifying all of the goals he wanted to accomplish while at the shelter, such as finding stable employment, buying a car, and most importantly reunifying with his son. With Terrell’s support and advocacy, Matt accomplished each goal he had set for himself. He was even the recipient of an HRP voucher last month; a 3 year housing scholarship through the County of San Mateo.

Throughout his time at Safe Harbor, Matt maintained contact with his former boss in Redding. This paid off when the opportunity to apply for a lead groundskeeper job at the cemetery became available. Matt swiftly applied and two weeks ago got the call he had been hoping for, offering him a well-paid, full-time position with benefits, beginning April 1st. He debated the merits of remaining in San Mateo County and utilizing the HRP voucher but ultimately decided that what he really wanted to do was return to his son with the new life skills he had developed during his time in South San Francisco. Matt used part of his savings to buy a car and tucked away the rest of his money for future housing in Redding.

Matt will be returning to Redding this afternoon, with a new bike, a car, a savings account, and a secure job. He is looking for an apartment to rent, and as soon as he is settled, he will be filing for full custody of his son. He is arriving back home just in time to celebrate his son’s 4th birthday; which will surely be the first of many happy birthdays to come.

Matt’s story is a remarkable one, both because of his own tenacity and hard work, but also as a prime example of that tried and true saying that “it takes a village.” There were the college kids who took a chance on a stranger on the road, the friendly Grand Avenue local who showed him the route to the shelter, the staff at Safe Harbor who supported him and believed in him.  Matt’s departure is bittersweet; we will miss his energy, his warm smile, his willingness to always lend a hand to fellow residents. But more importantly, we will relish in his success and in his incredible journey. As he hits the road today, back to that Highway where he stood so many months ago, and back to his beloved son, we wish him all the best. Matt’s future is bright and so very full of hope.