The fourth annual Hike for SHELTER on Mount Diablo gained heightened urgency when the 3,111-acre Morgan fire threatened the homes of residents on the mountain's east side in early September. The flames, propelled by shifting winds and feeding on a dense, dry brush fuel bed, forced the evacuation of 100 families. For those evacuees, "homelessness" instantly changed from an abstract concept into a possible reality.
The fire's proximity jolted Clayton residents and alarmed Danville and Alamo citizens, but it also laid the groundwork for understanding. Hike for SHELTER seeks to raise awareness -- and money -- to combat the problem of homelessness in Contra Costa County. And although no one would have wished for the devastation a fire can cause, the possibility for growth in public understanding (not to mention nature's recovery symbolized by next spring's wildflowers), represents opportunity.
Cynthia Dial, Shelter Inc.'s director of development, said in a phone interview the major challenge rivaling even the problem of homelessness in the county is the lack of public awareness.
"It's the worst best-kept secret," Dial said, quoting statistics including a 2011 census revealing there are more than 4,000 homeless men, women and children in the central county area. The complete tally? When you add to that number the "hidden homeless" (people living with family members), and stoke the homeless cycle with an economic downturn, you create a firestorm of 15,000 residents who will experience homelessness during the year, she said.
The family-friendly hike, a fun-filled day for the younger set and only a knee-popping challenge for those enrolled in the event's most ambitious trek, attracts hundreds of participants. With four options, ranging from the 2.4 mile "Easy Hike" to "Summit Hike's" 13.7 mile, +/-3,200' elevation, all ages (and fitness levels) are welcome.
In fact, this year's hike includes a Lafayette family with three generations hitting the hill on Oct. 19.
Bill Armstrong is a Shelter Inc. board member who hiked the Grand Canyon with the organization in 2011. The retired McKesson Corporation executive and dedicated runner said he never had time for the hours hiking required, until a Shelter Inc. client's heartbreaking story converted him.
"I went to a meeting and a gentleman who'd gotten sick told us his story," Armstrong recalled. "I learned it affected homeowners, legitimate wage earners who start slipping behind. It's tragic."
Armstrong also learned that Shelter Inc. clients aren't looking for handouts. They want services allowing them to make a plan. And support to stay on the plan. Shelter Inc. offers vital temporary housing solutions, but importantly, the nonprofit counsels clients in life skills, employment, health and educational opportunities.
Last year, Armstrong was assigned to lead the Summit Hike.
"I couldn't keep up with them, especially the women," he said, laughing. "They just blazed past me. This year, I'm 72 and I told them I can't lead anymore. I'm the caboose."
Armstrong's daughter Christine McKinney, representing the second generation, will carry the team's youngest member -- third generation, 4-month old Bridget. In addition to her parents and her daughter, she and seven family members will join the hike.
"We did it last year and it was great. Organized, spirited, people steering and cheering us along the trail. It was a whole day to be a part of something," she said.
Long before Armstrong and his wife Marilyne devoted family time to climbing Mount Diablo, they volunteered at Loaves and Fishes, the Concord-based organization dedicated to feeding the hungry.
"I remember the first time, in the late 80s," Bill said. "My daughter Jill was assigned to greet people. She was terrified, expecting them to be scary. They came with children. She was stunned. After they thanked us for the meal, she said, "Dad, they're just regular people." It struck a chord with me that these are our neighbors, they're just a little less fortunate."
McKinney said the event reinforces the family's identity in a way that birthday and holiday celebrations do not. Sharing a common goal and showing her kids not only the problem of homelessness, but that they can be a part of the solution, is crucial.
"My mom helped undocumented workers, often inviting them to our home for meals. The hike is the first thing we've put into action for our children," McKinney said. "I hope this is a tradition we can do every year."
Armstrong said the fire will not impact the hike, unless there is rain on or before Oct. 19. Even then, a "sloppy trail" on the Summit Hike causes him little anxiety; he's more concerned with keeping up with his fast-paced companions.