March 24, 2017 A Parent’s Struggle Inspires
Mary Stompe’s high job satisfaction is rooted in a truly personal situation; her mother experienced what far too many seniors do. Mary explains, “My own mother, who had lived a middle class life in Marin, began a rapid downward spiral when my father died unexpectedly. She lost his pension, health and dental insurance, their house, had no life insurance and no income other than the lowest monthly Social Security benefit. She couldn’t pay the property taxes, the medical insurance or her medical bills. Many peoples’ children may not be involved with their parents or possibly are just unable to help. These people are who we serve.”
Imagine finding the work that feeds your very soul. Mary, who is Executive Director of PEP Housing, has the deep satisfaction of that experience. “I love this job and it took me many years to get here. It is so gratifying to be able to place people in clean, safe homes with a high quality of life and to provide a true community. Being a low-income senior makes you very vulnerable in so many ways. We have residents who have actually lived in storage units, or their cars. One has a dog, so she can’t go to a homeless shelter. Now she is waiting for one of our apartments so she and her dog can stay together.”
PEP Housing is a maturing community citizen itself, celebrating 39 years of service. It began as a small, all-volunteer organization formed by dedicated local civic leaders and various clergy who joined forces to respond to the urgent needs of local seniors who were nearly homeless and living in appallingly substandard conditions. The original mission to bring dignity and quality to affordable housing specifically for seniors has steadfastly remained PEP’s focus. Now, over 450 seniors reside in 16 beautiful PEP Housing communities widely recognized for excellence in eco-friendly development and service-enriched programs. Today, with 11,000 Baby Boomers per day “aging in,” the demand for housing continues to grow, while that demand cannot be easily met.
Having served as leader of PEP Housing for more than 12 years, Mary is aware of the needs and the challenges of meeting them. “We can’t build to meet the demand. It takes an average of 5-7 years to build a project; meanwhile the waiting lists have grown significantly, with the average wait being 3-5 years. HUD has no more money for senior housing. Redevelopment went away; there is really no funding left for poor seniors, no government funding to build that housing.
“Most eligible seniors were once living middle class lives and are now trying to live on Social Security. Perhaps they lost their spouse, had a major illness, were victimized by predatory lending, or taken advantage of by a caretaker or financial advisor, and have quietly slipped into poverty,” explains Mary.
While building housing is PEP’s long-term objective, many of the 450 seniors living in PEP projects have other unmet needs. And often seniors are reluctant to speak up and ask for help. An observant on-the-scene network of Resident Service Coordinators continuously watches out for the needs of their neighbors. Mary observes, “We have to see, to identify a person’s need. We approach them with in-home services, so hopefully they can live at home for the rest of their lives. We provide every resource to them so they can successfully live independently. And believe me, they do not take advantage of it and are very respectful and grateful for the program.”
To help fill in gaps, in 2015-2016 PEP Housing received a $10,000 grant from Community Foundation Sonoma County to provide emergency assistance to low-income seniors needing items such as eyeglasses, dental work, prescriptions, and other things not covered by other sources. PEP’s deep relationships with the residents help provide immediate, real-time and personal assistance to the seniors housed in their properties.
The Resident Assistance Fund helps residents when something unexpected, like a heart attack, occurs. A senior with Medicare co-payments to make, and rent and food and maybe five medications, finds that an unexpected hospital visit leaves them with no resources and nowhere to go for help.
“The average amount we provide with these funds is about $500,” says Mary. “We give grocery gift cards when someone runs out of money for food before the end of the month. We give everyone holiday gift bags and grocery gift cards, which can buy a holiday meal. We try to improve their quality of life – we have a dairy delivery service of products close to their expiration dates. We provide more than an apartment – we provide a real home in a real community with a decent quality of life.”
PEP Housing, having started so many years ago with small properties, and all volunteers, has grown significantly, with the 16 finished properties and others in various stages. A new Ukiah project will have 10 designated units for senior veterans. An innovative and very challenging project involves working with filmmaker George Lucas, who is building 216 workforce/senior housing units which he is funding 100%. In contrast, another project required 19 different sources of funding.
Mary Stompe and her staff have energy, enthusiasm and experience that clearly help drive this effective and thriving organization. The management and staff answer to PEP’s governing board of directors, consisting of 12 members, both young and old. Several members are over 90. Leota Fisher, age 100, who has been a board member since 1992, is a former hospice nurse and source of inspiration for everyone in the community. Her service and dedication has resulted in the naming of a housing project: Fisher Senior Apartments. Clearly this organization builds homes for seniors, straight from the heart.