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Velvet Brown, head of Second Chance Beginnings, stands before the Trona Distribution Food Bank & Emergency Shelter. Brown has recently filed paperwork to become its non-profit entity. / Laura Quezada Photo

Non-profit brings food bank and tiny houses to Trona

By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer– There is a new food bank in Trona and a Tiny House project is in development on the edge of town. These new entities are receiving mixed reviews from Trona residents. Some welcome them, believing that anything you can do to help this town is a good thing. Others are skeptical and waiting to see how they play out. A vocal few see them as a threat and suspect that residents are being targeted by fraud.

From what the News Review can gather, the hosting non-profit organization, Second Chance Beginnings (SCB), is legitimate with altruistic goals. The Trona Distribution Food Bank & Emergency Shelter has filed paperwork to become its own non-profit entity. Anyone involved in the non-profit 501(c)3 world knows that obtaining that status is not an easy task. You can see their correspondence with the IRS on their webpage:

Velvet Brown, head of SCB, has been in Trona for three years. She and her husband Brandon purchased the Fairway Apartments, a 36-unit apartment building with five houses nearby. Their intention has been to rehabilitate the houses and apartments to be used for veteran housing. She tells us, “I worked with a lot of the programs, which are temporary housing for veterans. They pay their first and last month’s rent, and they get them into a house, and then the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) becomes permanent. Then they pay 70% of the veteran’s rent every month and the veteran pays 30%. They have about 80 veterans at this moment holding vouchers, which means they’ve been vetted through their program. They have a voucher to go find a house, and they will pay for the house. There are no houses. So there are tons of veterans looking for houses.”

In a brief conversation with Carol Coy of the Ridgecrest Veterans Advisory Committee, she revealed the price of the current Trona properties is a bit higher than what her veterans can receive approval for.

Since finding investors for the Fairway Apartments was proving difficult, Brown decided to find another way to gather funds. Her intention was to host festivals to bring people to town. There was an effort to use the Trona Airport as a venue, which initially was well-received, but negotiations fell apart after it was perceived that Brown’s team rushed the process. The Trona Community Council wanted to run their own approval through the BLM. Unknown to the Council, Brown had already been referred to the BLM before she met with the Council. Shortly after she received approval from the BLM and then forwarded the correspondence to the Council, from their point of view, she jumped the gun and declined the request for a festival. Clearly, it was a misunderstanding.

For the past few years, Brown reached out to lease the old D & B Market building, which most recently housed Family Dollar. The owner was asking an exorbitant monthly fee, but when he passed away, his heir offered them a reasonable rent. They took possession on September 1. They planned to use it for entertainment. “We ended up running into Inland Empire Health Plan (IEHP) at the Senior Center.” This is the organization that facilitates food banks. So Brown and her team decided to use the building for a food bank, emergency shelter, and after-school program entity. They held their grand opening on September 10. They threw a big party for the town with a parade, speeches, hamburgers and hot dogs, games, and a food giveaway.

Those who are against the new food bank said that they thought it would hurt the Senior Center. Ahmed Elhawary, Program Coordinator of the Trona Senior Center, says, “We don’t mind. But let’s do it smartly.” He points out a couple of factors to consider, the first of which he expresses as a personal opinion. The town doesn’t have that many active volunteers. It is hard work. If they are over-used, they may drop out of one group or quit altogether because it becomes too much. From his point of view as the Program Coordinator, the food bank services received by the Senior Center need them to keep up a consistent number of folks served. If the number drops, the amount of food delivered drops, as well as the financial support that goes 100% to the food bank process. None of these funds are used for any other purpose.

The Senior Center distributes commodities boxes on the 3rd Friday of the month. This is a minimum of a three-day process for them. It takes them a couple of days to put the boxes together and a day to distribute them. This is their distribution sponsored by the USDA. On the second and fourth Wednesdays, they distribute produce sponsored by IEHP. When picking up food, one self-certifies their income level when they check-in.

Elhawary is very positive about the prospect of the Tiny Homes project. “I would love any little improvement, no matter how little. If they put ten little homes, and I would see 10 veterans moving in, or whatever, extra people in Trona – I would love that. We’re losing people right and left.” He cites reasons people leave are old age, lack of opportunity, and being bored.  When he drives through town and someone says, “There used to be homes here,” he says, “I want to cry. This place was like a beautiful oasis in the middle of the desert.” Unknown to newer residents in this desert, once upon a time, Trona was a well-cared-for cohesive community. Corporate downsizing over the past several decades transformed the town into what you see today.

SCB has great plans for the Trona Park, which was opened before the pandemic when Searles Valley Minerals was undergoing expansion. The pandemic emptied out the park. Brown has plans for this property. “We want to put a new pool in there in the park.  We’re going to put trees, we’re going to make all the little tiny homes and we’re going make it a nice community. That’s the plan.” The intention is to rent to homeless veterans at $500 a month.

For this project, they are working with Tiny House Alliance USA (THA). Janet Thome, Founder, President, and Treasurer of THA, says, “I think what she is doing is important.”  We turned to Thome when a Trona resident was accusing fraud. They reviewed SCB’s non-profit status and told us they are definitely legitimate. Further digging found what caused this concern. There is a YouTube video linked to a blog post by THA that was created by SCB. The video promotes the Trona project and includes images of tiny homes. There are slides of tiny homes with captions: spaces available, models arriving soon, and models arriving. The last slide is the one that has folks up in arms. It is obviously not Trona because it has a lake.

Brown explains that there are two tiny houses waiting in Southern California. Since that is unclear in the video, she plans to remove the promotional video from YouTube.

The SCB mission statement reads: To locate and assist Veterans, their families, and the homeless in all areas of need…both active, non-active, and retired veterans of the United States of America Armed Forces. Also, to empower Veterans to recover and effectively reintegrate back into their communities. We are responding to Veterans’ issues of reconnecting to family life. Second Chance Beginnings recognizes that addressing the need for information and accessing resources are important parts of helping Veterans feel important.

It can be difficult to understand why Brown is meeting so much resistance to her efforts. Insights can be gleaned from research conducted by Sociologist Dr. Saleena Ham, which was printed in the academic publication The Conversation on February 22, 2023. It reads:

“One reason this happens is because people who live in small communities feel so attached to their community. It is as if it’s an extension of themselves.

So, when someone new comes in and wants to change things, it feels personal. The people who have lived there for a long time read it as a personal attack that threatens their values, stories, history, status and privileges. They feel like they have to defend the story of their special community from outsiders and anything they might want to introduce. They resist and repel in order to unconsciously protect and defend their place in the secret insiders’ club.

Change can make people feel socially uncertain. Uncertainty about identity can make people feel like they have to act to protect what they know and love: it’s who they are.

It can seem like they’re being senselessly mean and self-sabotaging. Still, they see it as necessary and justified to protect the familiar qualities and social order of their community or social group.”

You can read more about SCB on their website: