General Articles
Living on Edge

 During the October fires, North Bay residents—with every smoky, noxious breath—were reminded that, our friends and neighbors were losing their homes. For the 5,152 people already homeless in Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties—as counted in the 2017 nationwide Point-In-Time Count performed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—such fear is nothing new. They face it all the time. For them, and for the local agencies who struggle to help them find shelter, jobs and housing, the fires meant a horrifying catastrophe with an overwhelming aftershock: a new wave of residents suddenly competing for the already scarce housing available. Women are particularly vulnerable, and agencies in all three counties are struggling to help in the face of near overwhelming need.

Already a crisis

In Santa Rosa, The Living Room is a day shelter for women who lack basic living accommodations for themselves and their children, and who may be spending their nights in their cars or various shelters. “We see between 600 and 800 a year, including between 200 and 300 children,” says Executive Director Cheryl Parkinson. While she says there is no “typical” homeless person, the women who come to her are predominantly young––with an increasing number of seniors. “We’ve had just over 65 women who are over 62,” she says. “We have more than 200 women who are over 45.“ And while 90 percent of the women come from low income and a history of domestic violence, some have stumbled into homelessness from middle-class lives. “We’ve had professional people,” she says, “RNs, teachers, who have ended up in their cars.” While that seems impossible to believe, she explains that women are just more vulnerable. Women earn less, to start, and if a partner leaves, for whatever reason, she may not be able to support herself and the kids on her own. With the dearth of housing for those with little money, she falls into the system. After the fires destroyed 1,500 homes in Santa Rosa’s Coffee Park alone, the housing problem has become dire.

 “With all these people who have insurance money and have resources,” says Parkinson, “I don’t know what the options are going to be for people who work in the county.” Before the fires, there was practically no vacancy and prices were already more than most workers could afford. “If you’re not making $4,000 a month, you’re not going to qualify for anything, other than subsidized housing,” she says. “That’s great, if you can get it, but the waiting lists are long. We have people who qualify for Housing Choice Vouchers, which used to be called Section 8 vouchers, and they are on the list for four or five years before they get a voucher. When they receive a voucher, many landlords won’t accept them. Some see their vouchers expire before they can find a place that will take them.” The shelters’ transitional housing is limited, and the wait is long. “It’s a really difficult problem,” she says. And so it is, people become homeless and women—with their children––end up living in their cars. 

Homeless rates in the three counties are higher for men, but the impact may be greater for women, particularly single mothers, who find themselves without means or shelter, possibly fleeing domestic violence, and yet with all the responsibilities of heads of households. 

Downward spiral

For those just making it from paycheck to paycheck, simple events can trigger a downward spiral into homelessness. For example, if you’re going to work and get a flat tire, you’re frustrated and late,” says Parkinson. “You have to call a tow truck and buy a new tire. It’s inconvenient for most people, but if a poor person has a flat tire, they may not be able to call a tow truck. They have to wait around for assistance from a friend or family member. Maybe the car gets towed; maybe it gets impounded. They lose hours from work; their paycheck is less or they get fired; then they can’t pay their rent¬¬––and then they’re out.” Without money, family or other help, many will lack the leverage to get back on their feet. For these people, every event could be the one that precipitates disaster. “There is no safety net,” says Parkinson. “It can be that close.”

“The Living Room has always been a day center,” says Parkinson, “but we just bought a little tiny house across the street from us and we’re hoping, when we get a few things done on it, to get a small family in there before the end of the year.” They’re also converting what they call their “donation house” into transitional housing for four women. “We just figured we needed to do what we could to increase the affordable housing inventory.” It’s admittedly a drop in the bucket, but will mean a chance at life for a mother and her children.


Running in fear


NEWS serves about 40 to 50 survivors of domestic violence or sexual abuse each year. They come because they are fleeing violence, usually because it’s escalated to the point where they’re no longer safe in their home. “They may be running in fear,” says Executive Director Tracy Lamb. “Or their partner may have been arrested and they are left alone––maybe with kids––and can’t afford to pay rent. They may have been trying to live independently but lost a job, or something happens, and they call saying, ‘I need help.’”

 “We do homeless prevention or rapid re-housing,” she says. “We provide bridge money to pay short term rent so women can stay where they’re currently living. We want to try to avoid homelessness.” NEWSwas on the scene during the fires, too, as part of the Community Organizations Active in Disaster team. “Sometimes the crossover of domestic violence and natural disaster can have the same emotional effects on a person,” says Lamb. “We were hearing a lot of fears around whether people would be able to work and whether their hours would be affected. When something like the fires happens, it can really put people who have already experienced a crisis like domestic violence, in more of a crisis than the fires themselves.” 

NEWS provides a broad range of assistance to help women and families become safe. They help in obtaining court protective orders; they walk people though the system; they are the rape crisis center for Napa County. “We respond immediately,” says Lamb, “24 hours a day.” In the case of sexual assault, she says they stay with the person all the way through to the criminal justice system. “We stand beside them,” she says. They provide intensive case management services for people who have a long history of problems with mental health, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. They also provide mobile advocacy and transporting people to necessary services. They have support groups in English and Spanish, and an adjunct kids and housing program, helping find housing that helps ensure families are stabilized over time. “There’s a great need,” she says. “For many people, there are so many barriers to leaving a violent situation––language, fear––and we want them to know that we actually do have tools for solutions, for people who are considering whether or not to remain in a violent situation.”


Homeless neighbors

Kieawanie Shedrick Clar, program director for Gilead House in Marin, welcomes women from a variety of situations. “Some have been generationally homeless, and some women come to us who have just fallen on hard times––women who have masters’ degrees, and who have lost employment and have just fallen really low and lost everything.” She says that some come from local treatment facilities and many are fleeing domestic violence. Most, as the Point-In-Time Census shows, are local, not transients. While homelessness is difficult for both men and women, the problems for women have an additional weight. “Women function as the matriarch of the family,” Clar says. “They’re the nurturing party. As a single mom, you’re both provider and nurturer. You’re everything to the child, to the family.”

 “We have moms who may have been Starbucks baristas,” says Clar, “And you may not even know that they have bathed and washed that morning in the company bathroom before their shift.” Then when it comes time to go to bed, she does what most moms do, says Clar, “She creates a space for her family. They’ll go ahead and make sure that they have their blankets and the pillows, and Mom lays the kids down in the back seats and grabs a blanket and sits in the front seat and gets as much sleep as she can in the night. Those are the women we serve.”

At Gilead House, women can get basic help learning parenting skills, accessing health and mental health care, going into a job training program or––if they’re ready––moving directly into work. They can learn about budgeting. They can connect with a mentor. “We focus a lot on reaching out in your own community,” she says. They help women analyze their needs. “Do they have a poor rental history? Do they have credit problems? Are they in debt? Do they have problems with the IRS regarding taxes? What are the barriers that are going to prevent you from being able to move forward independently?” Gilhead House is also beginning to look at what housing will look like in the future.

A new look at affordable housing

Rachel Ginis founded Lilypad Homes, a nonprofit organization supporting North Bay homeowners to create permitted rental housing units called Accessory Dwelling Units, because she knows firsthand how vulnerable a single mother, struggling with a mortgage and expenses, can be. When she became a single mother 17 years ago, her response to the fear was to follow her interest and passion into the field of residential design. Over the years, she built a solid foundation in sustainable design and, passionate about creating a workable model for the problem of housing, she developed the Lilypad concept. 

The idea is that while many people now––single people, small families––can’t find affordable spaces, many others––empty nesters, women finding themselves alone––have houses with spaces they’re not using. By repurposing a spare bedroom with an outside entrance into a Junior Unit, she can help a single mom stay in her home and renters enjoy a small affordable space, while maintaining the character of the neighborhood. Ginis sees many households that can benefit from sharing properties in this way, but it’s particularly satisfying for her to be helping women to keep their homes. “Helping women is helping everybody,” she says. “Women have a lot of housing insecurity, so this is important. Our work at Lilypad is to redevelop existing homes, in a very sensible, cost effective way, to house the people who wish to live in our communities––couples without kids, single parent families, individuals of all ages, women,young professionals. And we call it flexible housing. 

“The work I’m doing is very much about empowering women,” she says. “Most women do not realize the asset they have in their homes.” By incorporating a junior unit, a flexible in-law apartment created out of a spare bedroom, the home, which had been unaffordable becomes an asset, helping to generate the money to pay for itself. “Your home is your greatest, most personal investment,” she says, “and particularly for women.”

 Before the Fires

Here’s a “Point-In-Time” Census for Homelessness in 2017 – from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Point-in-Time Census counts for homeless 

Nationally, the majority of homeless families are households headed by single women and families with children under the age of six. 


In Marin, 2017 Point-in-Time Count

1,117 total homeless reported during the count, down from 1,309 in 2015

31 percent of the total homeless population were female, up from 28 percent in 2015

72 percent became homeless while living in Marin, up from 71 percent in 2015

64 percent reported being homeless for a year or more, up from 51 percent in 2015

In Napa

1,198 total number homeless or at-risk 

Majority of homeless are long-term Napa residents

62 percent of the total adult homeless population are male 

6,230 female-headed single parent households

2,497 male-headed single parent households

Sonoma County Point-in-Time Count

2,837 total homeless reported, down from 3,107 in 2015

30 percent of the total homeless reported were female, down from 33 percent in 2015

111 total number of homeless families with children under age six, down from 127 in 2015

6,305 cases of unique homeless experiences over a year, down from 6,876 in 2016

On the social consequences of homelessness in women 

Custodial single mothers and their children are twice as likely to live in poverty as the general population. In addition to the financial stress, single parenting, especially for those facing low incomes and/or the need to hold multiple jobs often leads to physical and emotional stress, depression and feelings of hopelessness that can greatly strain their relationships and emotional bonds with their children. “About Parenting” published by the U.S Census Bureau, 2009

 Home at Last in Santa Rosa

Pam Voyles is 58 and became homeless when the Valley Fire destroyed her rental place. After the fire, she came down to Santa Rosa in search for housing.

There, she found the rents impossible. She was living on disability since being injured in a robbery 27 years ago, which left her with a damaged spine. She walks with the help of a cane and her service dog, Blue. While she has

had, since early adulthood, the whole array of typical difficulties, she says she was taught by her elders, her grandmother and her aunts, that when she was knocked down, to get up and go on, which she does. “Anything’s possible if you really keep searching for the help out there,” she says. “Because there is help. I wanted to give up day after day and I just had that notion to fight a little more.”


Now, thanks to the help she received at The Living Room, a volunteer financial advisor, and other agencies who helped her when she was trying to keep hopeful, pay her bills apply for a Section 8 rental, while living in her car, which was a challenge. “Once you get your Section 8 approved, which takes years, then you only have 90 days to find a place to live. If you don’t have all your applications in place, you don’t get in. My financial advisor helped me. The people at the living room helped.” She now has a one-bedroom apartment for herself and Blue, with room to do her craft work, and a community around her. She helps others when she can. “It really hurts me to see some of the women that I see out there,” she says. “Daughters and mothers. Mothers with small children. It’s not easy. Thank God for the Living Room. That is a place where women can go, whether they want help, or know how to get the help, or just need a meal.

“I thank God for what I’m doing right now. It took me a long time,” she says. When she finally got her apartment, she couldn’t believe it. “My dog kept pacing back and forth, she wasn't sure. I’m so grateful.”

Learn more about The Living Room at:


Homeless in Marin

barista mom finds home thanks to Gilead House and others

Amanda, 30, was living in Stockton, on welfare with no other support for her two young children, and after the rent she had $50 to pay all her bills. In 2012, she had to choose to pay the rent or give the kids a Christmas. She chose Christmas. They became homeless. It was a struggle from there.

For a year, she commuted from Stockton to Marin––five hours round trip––to work 40 hours a week at Starbucks, for $9.20 an hour. “I think most of my money went toward gas,” she says. She put two of her kids in school in Novato while she worked, and eventually, to keep them stable, she decided to find a place in Marin. She was shocked. At the time, a two-bedroom apartment was going for $1,850. “Where I was from, you could get a four-bedroom house for that,” she says. She bounced around, then found Gilead House, where she stayed for two years. They helped her qualify for Section 8. The Ritter Center, a San Rafael nonprofit, helped with food and holding mail; Adapt a Family, another nonprofit whose mission is to help prevent homelessness, helped with her security deposit. She says Gilead House taught her how to be independent, how not to take “no” for an answer. 

She now has a place, and a job, which she got through a temp agency. “I’m an administrative assistant for an auto body shop,” she says. “I do payroll, and bookkeeping. It’s been a great experience.” 

Learn more about these organizations at: