MARTINEZ -- Tiffani Seymour could see something taped to her door as she approached, something with big bold letters. She took a few more strides and a wave of fear hit her as she read the words: "EVICTION NOTICE."
It was late 1997, and Seymour was a 15-year-old at Mt. Diablo High School, a straight-A student and a competitive dancer. Still, her family had been spiraling into dysfunction. One sister had left the home just days earlier. Her mother, deep in a drug habit, had abandoned the home and was nowhere to be found.
"I was scared," she says now. "Really, really scared. I had no idea what was going to happen to me."
Things would get worse before they would get better -- including a stay in jail on a drug-related arrest -- but with the help of Shelter Inc., Seymour was able to get her life back on track.
She told her story on a recent winter afternoon at Shelter Inc., a Martinez-based nonprofit housing facility for struggling families and the homeless. The shelter operates with state funding and donations from volunteers, and it allows anyone who enters its doors to stay up to a year, provided they follow a program designed to create self-discipline and other life skills with the goal of getting them into permanent housing and ending the cycle of homelessness.
Seymour is 31 now, half her life removed from that awful day in 1997 when she arrived home to find herself locked out and alone. She dropped out of school, moved in with her boyfriend, became pregnant, began using drugs, staying at friends' homes and spiraling into despair on the streets.
But a "moment of clarity" while inside a jail cell after a drug-related arrest in 2010 "woke me up," she said. She entered a drug treatment facility in Pittsburg in 2011, where a director steered her toward Shelter Inc. She arrived there in April 2012, a year into sobriety, and the positive momentum continued. In February, she moved into transitional housing; by summer, she was in a Concord apartment.
Two weeks ago, she married her boyfriend, Chris Seymour, and the two have remained self-sufficient after years of wandering aimlessly. They live in a small Concord apartment, Chris Seymour working full-time in construction and Tiffani Seymour staying at home to raise their children, a 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son.
They are -- in the words of many who work at Shelter Inc. -- "shining lights" of what public assistance is intended to do, and two of the more memorable people to come through the doors of the facility, which was founded in 1986.
Leaving a mark on the staff is no small achievement, considering the center's overall success rate:
"We want to give a hand up, not a hand out," Shelter Inc., Executive Director Tim O'Keefe said. "That may sound like a cliché, but it is the truth. Most people can get back up and on the road if there's help they can turn to when they need it."
In Contra Costa County, a family would need nearly four full-time minimum-wage jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment, according to Shelter Inc. spokeswoman Chris Fillter. About 7,500 people in the county are homeless.
Of the 5,500 individuals who used Shelter Inc. in 2012, 20 percent were there after being laid off from a job.
Tiffani Seymour was a year into her recovery from an eight-year addiction to methamphetamine, marijuana and alcohol but "still really lost" when she came to the facility.
"I made horrible choices, but I think what I hope people will understand is that there are factors in life that contribute to those decisions," she said.
At Shelter Inc., she was schooled in the basics of managing her time and money, learning to balance a budget and live on $300 in public assistance. She was counseled on life skills, learned discipline and was held accountable for her actions.
Chris Seymour got a glimpse of her transformation, and his life changed, too. "I saw what the program was doing in her life," he said, "and I wanted it for me."
As the two made progress, Shelter Inc. paid Tiffani Seymour's initial payment on her car insurance, so she could drive legally. It paid off Chris Seymour's construction union dues, so he could resume work. In February, they moved into transitional housing.
"You begin to learn to trust again," she said.
With those skills in tow, the difference in the couple's lives is dramatic. A Christmas tree and decorations decorate their Concord apartment. A large, inflatable Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer greets visitors on the front lawn. Sounds of laughter are common, and nearly every conversation steers toward gratitude.
Life has improved so much, Tiffani Seymour has even begun the reconciliation process with her mother.
"This place saved our lives," she said. "To know we're on the right path now, it's a gift every day of our lives."
Contact Rick Hurd at 925-945-4789. Follow him at Twitter.com/3rdERH.