AVAC’s Wellness Director, Mary Ann Smith is going above and beyond to help homeless women rebuild their lives. Discover how she gives her time to those in need outside of her normal AVAC® business day…
via – San Jose Mercury News | Joe Rodriguez
San Jose churches take in fragile, homeless women for El Niño winter
Irene Lopez has slept on the streets, along creeks and in just about every emergency housing shelter in Silicon Valley. But through the winter of El Niño, she will have a cot in a church that is close to Jesus.
“My God, we sleep like babies here,” the single, homeless woman said inside the cavernous sanctuary of Holy Spirit Church in San Jose. “It beats sleeping on a cement floor.”
The 41-year-old San Jose native chose a brand-new folding cot set up next to the altar and just left of a large, wooden crucifix of Jesus of Nazareth. Around her, 14 other homeless women settled in for the night, covered in colorful fleece blankets woven especially for them by local Girl Scouts.
Starting with Holy Spirit, four churches have set out to do something truly different about homelessness in this valley of innovation. The congregations will house, feed and clothe a group of 15 women for up to 35 days each over four months.
By not having to worry about daily survival, the women should have the time and energy to keep their medical appointments, apply for housing, jobs and generally try to get off the streets for good. They’re not required to, but it’s the hope behind the charity.
“They are medically fragile women and would not survive the winter by themselves,” said Mike Ferrero, a lay volunteer head of social services at Holy Spirit. “Our goal is to support them with a safe, stable and loving environment.”
The rotating church shelter project doesn’t have an official name, but it does have good timing. When Santa Clara County surveyed its homeless population in 2013, one-third of the 6,556 people with no place to call home were women, and most of them were single.
But we don’t know much more about them. For starters: the reasons for their homelessness.
Holy Spirit pastor Brendan McGuire came up with the rotating shelter idea after a haunting encounter with a homeless young man in Oregon a few months ago.
“If even a fraction of the 300 churches in the valley took in homeless people overnight,” McGuire said, “we could do more good than all of the emergency shelters combined.”
When the priest broached the idea to his affluent parishioners in the Almaden Valley, more than 500 of them volunteered to help with home-cooked meals, overnight supervision, transportation and more. San Jose City Hall did its part by relaxing shelter regulations. Social agencies and health clinics referred the women to the project.
Over the next three months, East Side/West Side will drop in at each church to see how the women are doing. For now, here are a few of their stories.
The youngest is Bree Martinez, a former runaway teen who ended up squatting in abandoned buildings with drug-addicted friends and burning out at age 21. She traced the roots of her problems to undiagnosed childhood depression and constant arguments with her mother that spiraled out of control. On her first day at Holy Spirit, Martinez headed straight for the showers. She had not bathed in weeks.
“I just stood under that shower and cried and cried,” she said. “I’ve been fighting for the last eight years of my life, and I’m done with it. It’s time to grow up.”
She once dreamed of becoming a gourmet chef, but now talks about counseling others in trouble. The truth is she bounces between both pursuits and spends a lot of time during the day with her 38-year-old boyfriend — a recovering addict.
At Holy Spirit, the women rise early and leave the sanctuary by 7 a.m. for breakfast served by volunteers in a conference room. Down the road at Almaden Hills United Methodist, they search for jobs, permanent housing and more at a computer-equipped, Internet-wired “warming center.”At dinner, most of the women share their news of the day and exchange information, often with ease and hearty laughs. But some dine silently, barely speaking a word. The volunteer cooks and kitchen helpers listen in, being careful not to mess up the developing chemistry among the homeless.
Yolanda Estrada, 49, announced with a beaming smile, “I found my joy again, I’ve found my voice!”
She had just joined the choir at a counseling center. In a quiet moment, Estrada said she gradually lost everything — a job with a prominent medical group, house, car and savings — after the sudden death of her husband in 2012 from a brain aneurysm. Floored by profound grief and depression, the Sunnyvale native found herself two years ago on San Jose streets, or riding a bus all night, and finally hitting bottom in Hollister before being selected for the church rotation.
She hadn’t had a haircut in months and jumped at the chance when a local beauty salon offered the women free cuts.
“What I’ve found here is a sisterhood of women who are going through the same situation,” she said. “It’s a sisterhood I never knew existed.”
Altogether, the four churches expect to spend about $10,000 in cash to house the women, a bargain in anyone’s book. At Holy Spirit, parish volunteers do every crucial job. The best cooks send their favorite dishes. Some who are licensed medical professionals stay overnight to monitor the medications of the women.
Irene Lopez said she has suffered from epilepsy and depression since childhood. Pregnant at 16, she soon dropped out of high school and had three more kids. Her brother is raising the youngest. Lopez has worked several low-wage jobs, always earning too little or making too many bad choices in life, before accepting this last-ditch offer of help.
After three weeks at Holy Spirit, she signed up for adult education classes and a subsidized apartment.
Lopez follows a routine every night. After dinner and taking her medication for epilepsy, she sits on her cot beside the altar and reads from a worn down, food-stained prayer book given to her years ago by an anonymous Christian lady.
“It’s never too late,” she said. ” There will be a lot of doors that open for me after this. But if I don’t stick with it, I’ll be back on the streets.”
The lights inside the sanctuary go out at 10:30 p.m. Before sunrise, the only sounds come from passing traffic and the whispers of watchful church people.