Expecting their first child, saving for a first home and working as a preschool teacher, all seemed well with a young family until their daughter’s birth had complications. The couple, having no health insurance, used all their savings on medical bills. Then, after her husband lost his job and eventually walked out, never to return, the mother and her young daughter found themselves homeless.
After two years surviving an incredibly difficult life, mother and daughter are grateful to Catholic Charities’ Family Support Center. There they have a room and help to draft a job resume and learn interview skills. This led to a part-time job, with an apartment on the horizon.
This is a reality here in Sonoma County.
When we consider the seemingly intractable specter of homelessness we realize it can happen to almost anyone at any time, as many are woefully underprepared for meeting the demands of today’s complex, unpredictable and expensive world. Once caught in its maze, homelessness can be difficult to find one’s way out of without the right kind of help and guidance.
The phrase “. . . one paycheck away from homelessness” graphically describes the tentative conditions many people are living and working under today, here and around the country. A 2014 survey of 4,000 adults taken by the U.S. Federal Reserve reported that many were hard hit by the recession. Among those who had savings prior to 2008, 57% said they’d used up some or all of them. Only 39% had a “rainy day” fund adequate to cover three months of expenses and only 48% said that they could completely cover an emergency expense costing just $400, without selling something or borrowing money.
So what are we doing about it? One effective organization working in this arena is Catholic Charities, which has been providing housing and homeless services for over 25 years in Sonoma County. Current programs serve over 3,000 homeless children and adults annually through emergency shelters for families and individuals, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, rapid re-housing and homelessness prevention programs.
Catholic Charities’ Executive Director, Len Marabella, speaks about their work with both conviction and compassion, “We’re here to challenge poverty head on: our goal is to make people stable and independent. We’re in it for the long haul and we stay with them all along their path. We first take care of everyone’s basic needs like food, clothing, and transportation. This in turn builds trust and allows an opportunity for us to go further. We have shelters and other emergency resources. The less obvious, but no less important goal, is our in-depth case management process. We have a specific plan of action for each individual or family, so that they can move forward with their case manager who guides them. In parallel we provide specific guidance to help people to enroll in programs that will benefit them; teach them how to manage their money, improve parenting skills, and help them learn how to get a job. This all allows them to begin to be stable — and best of all — independent.”
Catholic Charities has three major areas of focus: challenging poverty and homelessness, supporting senior citizens and counseling immigrants. For several years, Catholic Charities has received a $40,000 general operating support grant from Community Foundation Sonoma County in support of their homelessness work. The grant has helped to develop and implement a critical data-tracking system to increase efficiencies and inform planning. Concurrently, the Community Foundation provides the City of Santa Rosa with a $70,000 grant to operate the Sam Jones Hall shelter, which is operated by a contract with Catholic Charities. Additional donor-advised funds help support their many successful programs.
While the causes of and solutions to homelessness are complex and challenging, Catholic Charities’ staff maintains that the overarching issue is simply this: lack of affordable housing. Sonoma County desperately needs at least 2,000 low-income housing units right now, even as the need grows. In the meantime, this resourceful organization runs three shelter programs, street-level pre-shelter services where staff goes out to encampments to encourage use of services, a winter Code Blue program providing heaters and porches and anything available to help people stay warm, street breakfasts to build trust while offering assistance, a safe parking program where homeless people living in vehicles can park safely overnight, helping people find jobs, parenting classes, and health & wellness workshops. All these, while helping a great deal, still boil down to one primary thing: lack of affordable housing.
Catholic Charities focuses on the most vulnerable, even as they immediately begin lifting up each family and individual with whatever is most needed; there are no real shortcuts. People are fed, their health and basic welfare is assessed, and they are assigned a case management team. As people have basic needs met and begin to feel more secure and healthy, the work to become self-sufficient continues. The need is ongoing and growing.