AUBURN — Bill Haines lifted his powder blue suitcase with belt buckle straps and a dual window fan out of the back of Christina Thornton's car. It was all he had now, after leaving behind his guitar and television in Pennsylvania with his son and 8-year-old granddaughter.

Laid off from his latest job and concerned about the number of people already living in his son's apartment, Haines made his way back to Auburn, where his sisters live. It was Thornton, however, whom he called.

Haines was a familiar face to the executive director of Chapel House, a nonprofit organization that serves homeless people in Cayuga County. On Dec. 2, it'll celebrate a decade of work — a decade of helping about 1,500 people, like Haines, get back on their feet since it opened in the fall of 2007. 

Thornton said the 57-year-old had been through the homeless shelter a couple of times already, mostly because of layoffs that left him unable to pay rent. 

"When he was at the shelter, he was always very helpful, helping direct other clients and welcoming," she said.

When Haines left the shelter after getting a job, he'd come back and volunteer. But then he got laid off again, Thornton said. At that point, the organization was looking for an overnight staffer, so she hired Haines. 

"I was there a lot," Haines said. "I was always a clean freak."

Testing his new bed at Chapel House's transitional housing facility on Grant Avenue, Haines eyed a cluster of soda bottles on his roommate's dresser. Leaving the fan and a few other belongings in the room, he followed Thornton into the office next door to fill out paperwork, talk to a staff member and eventually get help on his resume. 

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Bill Haines, 57, sits on his bed in the Chapel House transitional housing facility, where he can begin to rebuild his life after being homeless.

In the 10 years the nonprofit has been operating in Auburn, Thornton said, the clientele has been changing. Last year, 20 percent of the people who came through the shelter were homeless veterans. Another 20 percent were young adults between the ages of 18 and 24. Thornton said there's always been a couple of young adults in and out of the shelter, but "the youth thing is new to us," she said of the increase.

As the needs change, so has the organization. 

What started as an emergency shelter for men at Holy Family School on North Street is now a more encompassing complex of emergency, transitional and permanent housing, with programming and services in place for residents. The transitional housing program now houses women, too. Thornton said when she came on board in 2012, there were four staff members. That has now expanded to 14, both full- and part-time.

Emergency housing supports 19 individuals, transitional housing supports 16 and permanent housing has seven beds available, Thornton said, through a partnership with local landlords. 

While much has happened that Thornton looks back on proudly during this 10th anniversary, there's one challenge on the horizon she is gearing up to tackle: Moving Chapel House's emergency shelter on Franklin Street to a new location.

"We know that our location, as well as the structure on Franklin Street, is not really ideal for our clients or for the neighborhood," Thornton said. "There's very close quarters. I mean, there's four people in a room, and for an adult male, it's not a comfortable living situation. So we would like them to be able to have more privacy. It's just trying to make our service better when we're helping people, because when they come to us, they're at their lowest point. It's kind of our job to boost them up, and help them get back into permanent housing."

Besides the cramped quarters, the house is not accessible to people with disabilities. Thornton said she's still not sure if Chapel House would renovate an existing building or raise a new one altogether, but the nonprofit's board is in the stages of collecting information. They're talking to clients, too, to see what worked well in the shelter, or what things might have been missing. 

As the shelter works to better itself for the next 10 years, so does Haines. 

"I just want to get a decent job and an apartment," he said. "These applications are all online. I'm old school. I know computers, but these resumes and stuff like that, oh my God."

He laughed, and a smile reached into the crinkled corners of his eyes. 

Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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County Government Reporter