The work of Community Health Engagement takes courage and heart

CHE staffers in Chinatown

Jacqui Smith, senior manager (center), and CHE Center staff members | Photo by Brent Dundore-Arias

October 27, 2022

By Walter Ryce

The motto of the College of Health Sciences and Human Services is “Helping people live longer, happier, and healthier lives.” 

And that ethic is on full display at the college’s Center for Community Health Engagement, commonly known as CHE, and formerly known as the Chinatown Community Learning Center. 

CHE is a facility located in the heart of Salinas’ Chinatown district, a place that has accumulated a storied history as a former Chinese and Asian district of thriving businesses and community. 

But in the wake of the closing of Fort Ord, businesses evaporated and residents left, leaving what is today a messy refuge for people with low to no income, who are vulnerable and unhoused, and many of whom harbor mental illness or addiction.  

They are the clients of CHE. 

Some of the services that the staff of CHE render to them include street outreach, case management, health and wellness, housing navigation and retention. 

But it’s also a teaching facility where CSUMB’s social work, nursing, physician assistant and service learning students can come and apply their training and attention to populations that desperately need it. 

At a recent site visit by CSUMB President Vanya Quiñones, Stephen Mackey, the associate vice president for Finance, and other university officials, CHE managers and staff had the opportunity to talk about the work they do and who they do it for. 

“All units in our College [of Health Science and Human Services] can come here to train and learn everything together,” said wellness supervisor Renie Rondon-Jackson, LCSW. “They’ll know how to cooperate with other professionals.”

CHE partners with organizations like Central Coast Center for Independent Living (CCCIL), Community Homeless Solutions, Coalition of Homeless Service Providers, City of Salinas, Monterey County Department of Social Service, Monterey County Housing Authority, and others. 

Addie Heckler, an outreach specialist, took to the podium and talked about CHE’s street team.  

“We’re boots on the ground,” she said. “We’re with the clients from the beginning out in encampments, to when they start case management. We take it to them: hygiene, food, water, conversation. Sometimes all people really need is someone to listen to them. Anything the client wants support with, we’ll provide or we’ll point them in the right direction.”

She said that even just being a consistent presence is vital, and that it builds a relationship of trust. But safety is also paramount. 

The entire time during the Covid pandemic, the CHE staff was doing their work, wearing personal protective equipment and taking mobile tablets out to where homeless people were in order to provide services.

When they find encampments they go in groups, always have a male staffer present, and if a homeless client isn’t in the mood to be helped, “we don’t force it” Heckler says. 

But when the client is ready, they get referred to someone like David Marquez, a case management coordinator.

“We pick up where outreach leaves off,” Marquez said. “We have an emergency motel program, currently housing 72 individuals. We help them get a source of income. We collaborate with multiple agencies and offer support groups.”

Their work can happen in the CHE office, or outside wherever homeless persons are living. Sometimes a barrier to being housed starts with paperwork, like a missing ID or Social Security card; sometimes it’s that they are not emotionally prepared. 

When a client decides to transition off the street and into a living dwelling, the work and support continues in the form of housing retention.

“It can be 3 to 6 months to make sure they’re heading in the right direction,” Marquez continued. “We [help get] first months’ rent or incentives for landlords [to accept the client]. We do weekly followups, make sure they’re budgeting, have groceries, have childcare, to help them sustain the unit.” 

CHE's health and wellness unit provides counseling and referrals for homeless client dealing with addiction, physical limitations, mental illness.

Mechelle Harris, also a case manager, talked about a recent client of hers.

“I have a client who recently got housed,” she said, which was met with cheers. “I’m going to explain to him how his lease works so he’s not signing something he doesn’t understand. We’ll go to a thrift shop for pots and pans. I’m so proud of him. He was recently released from prison and he was literally giving up on himself. I said ‘No! I’m not giving up on you so you don’t give up on you!’”

That prompted more cheers.  

Jacqui Smith graduated from CSUMB’s Masters of Social Work program and is today a senior manager at CHE. She is widely credited with greatly expanding its mission and scope. She says that people who come to work at CHE — there are 15 on staff now, supported by interns and students — are courageous and love the work they do. 

“The people we hire are passionate about serving our unsheltered community,” Smith said. “To know that they are part of helping someone to move from an encampment to an apartment brings a deep sense of validation that they are part of something greater than themselves.”

While the various staffers spoke to their seated visitors, a large digital screen cycled through different photos and slides, depicting elaborate makeshift shelters in the woods, urban tent encampments, CHE staff working out in the field, a brief history of Chinatown, an organizational flowchart of CHE. 

One slide showed a photo of an elderly man sleeping on the sidewalk in Chinatown. The accompanying captions listed his issues as health, housing, ID, birth certificate, retirement [paperwork]. The interventions included a survey to determine his risk, a referral to consultant general physician and temporary motel shelter, ID form, bank and retirement paperwork.

It continues “Outcome of your intervention: Lost him” and concludes “What would you do different: Not lose him.”

President Quiñones addressed the CHE staff, saying, “I am really proud to be in your presence. What you’re doing is really important work. Homelessness is something that is in my heart. I’m very active in the homeless community in New York, but I just do it briefly. You do it every single day. I know how taxing it is to the heart. Anything you need we are here to support you.”

Maria A. Gurrola is a professor and chair in the Department of Social Work.  

“Thank you for coming here and seeing us, seeing the staff,” Gurrola told the tour visitors. “[The staff] are the ones out there. They are the only ones doing this type of work. We go to South County, nobody is there but them. As we continue growing, the need is here. There’s more support needed.” 

Harald Barkhoff, dean of the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, was at the site visit to lend his perspective and support. 

"CHE is a wonderful example of how higher education can have a direct, intentional, and meaningful impact on the well-being of our community," Barkhoff said. "The Social Work department faculty, staff, and students have done such an amazing job of being engaged in service and people." 

Learn more by visiting the CHE website