One bustling street in Santa Rosa—Cleveland Avenue and Carrillo Street to be exact—is surrounded by several homes and industrial business parks, with limited parking around the neighborhood. There’s one unassuming, light yellow house—with an adjacent, identical, smaller residence to its north—on this very corner that might look like any other residence on the block, but it’s not. The main home is called The Living Room. Sometimes referred to as the Cleveland/Carrillo campus, it’s group housing that has provided an outlet for women—including some who are mothers with children—who are homeless or at-risk of becoming homeless.
The early days
The Living Room was originally founded in 1993 by a group of congregants at the Church of the Incarnation on Cherry Street in Santa Rosa. Currently, it employs 13 staff members and about 20-plus volunteers assist. The organization had more than 100 rotating volunteers until the pandemic was declared in 2020. According to Kim Hinde, board president, the campus initially started as a program for women, who were living on the streets to come in, warm-up and have a cup of coffee. In 2015, a property was identified at Cleveland Avenue and Carrillo Street, and in 2016, it opened its doors as a day program, Monday through Friday, between 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Volunteers at The Living Room would serve participants two, hot meals (breakfast and lunch), offered parenting classes and job resources. They also had a mother-and-child room where children could play while their mothers spoke with a social worker and perhaps with a therapist, participated in group therapy, or listened to music and took part in different classes. And for a few, select women, it was also a place where they could come in and rest.
“So maybe 10 women per day were chronically homeless, but the majority of women and children—that’s the big part of our program—were maybe living in a car, living at a friend’s house, living in a shelter, or living in a rental property, which they may have identified through us, working with other nonprofits in the community,” says Hinde. “But attending our program would help them offset their expenses, so they could come in and eat two meals, they could bring their children (if they weren’t in Kindergarten). And we had a supply closet where they could get any supply they needed—be it soap, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, underwear, socks, clothes.” The Living Room also had a “points closet,” which is a small building on-campus that housed all of the daily supplies and other donations.
As a participant of the program, a woman could earn points by taking on different responsibilities on-campus, she adds, and then “shop” in the “points closet.” The closet included items, which almost all were donated by the community, such as purses, scarves, small trinkets, toys and non-essential clothing. However, participants didn’t need to earn points for daily supplies. The Living Room also took donations, some of which were higher-end items, which women wouldn’t necessarily need in an emergency, such as a sleeping bag or tent, but were able to shop for in the closet. The campus had a solid program going, but when the pandemic hit, The Living Room had to close its doors to the day program.
The Living Room’s mission is to ease adversity, promote stability and support self-reliance for women and children, who are experiencing homelessness or at-risk of homelessness, in Sonoma County. Cindy Pasko, executive director, can attest that prior to the pandemic, the campus’ mission was being achieved. “The organization’s mission is to provide comfort and support for women and children that are experiencing homelessness. The way The Living Room accomplishes this is by outreach and wrap-around services for each person who wants it. We have some people who do not want to come inside, but for those who want to come in to be sheltered and to restore some form of living, we provide wrap-around services for them, so we have whole-person care,” says Pasko. “We would provide housing in most cases and then it could be anything, whatever their barrier might be. We work with them to remove those barriers. People need different things and we try to meet or support them.”
Before a participant is accepted into The Living Room, she must undergo a screening process before she can start receiving services. Regardless of the obstacle, each woman is dealing with, the staff will still help them. “People come to The Living Room from all different types of conditions, whether they are newly homeless or in some cases, chronically homeless. We’re focusing on those who are newly and intermittingly homeless, so there is a screening process. We have learned that because over the past several years, we have served whoever came, it didn’t matter,” says Pasko. “Whether it was an addiction or severe mental illness, nothing was a barrier. But we have learned that we are not equipped to serve well in those areas, with deeper addictions or substance abuse, and mental illness. And so, we’ve narrowed that because we have group housing and we found that it works better for everyone when there’s not only a desire to go through our program but there’s a real desire to make a difference in their lives.”
Although the whole process into the program may seem a little daunting for some participants, Hinde says participants have extensive casework and the services are very intense, but they do receive support.
When a woman arrives, she is assigned a case manager, to work with, but she will also work towards her own accountability. “We have a whole cycle, an in-service program that they are part of to complete, so it gives them accountability, responsibility and dignity…their ability to succeed,” says Hinde.
Participants in their temporary housing graduate from the program in one to two years. Upon graduation, they are moved to permanent housing that staff will help them identify.
Participants in the program can reapply if needed. According to Pasko, traditionally, some programs have run anywhere from nine months to two years. There have been many participants who were in the program for two years and then were finally able to get home, she says, adding that it also depends on what the participant is doing to find housing. The Living Room is not permanent housing, but it’s based as a bridge for getting out of homelessness and back into appropriate, permanent housing, that may be assisted living, a group home, an apartment, or a house. Also, to remain living in one of the units, existing participants are required to take part in community service, if they’re physically able to. “We’ve found that community is one of the most powerful healing processes, and so many people have burnt through all of their connections by the time they’re experiencing homelessness,” says Pasko. Participants recognize that by reaching out to others, there’s healing that happens in them too, so all the things that The Living Room does is built strongly around building community for the participants and for us with the participant.”
According to Pasko, the services The Living Room has provided include helping participants apply for Social Security insurance or disability, financial literacy, access to legal aid and therapists. They also offer tailor-made services. If someone needs help, such as in how to answer typical, job interview questions—which can be a barrier for some—then the staff will provide interview coaches to assist them. The staff works hard in supporting participants in all areas and really tries to match volunteers with participants to recognize that they’re unique individuals, who have unique skills and abilities.
In March 2020, when the COVID pandemic was officially declared, it presented a real problem for The Living Room. The Sonoma County Health Department shut down the campus, which meant their day program had to cease operations. Although this created a major setback for staff and volunteers, it didn’t stop them from assisting participants. Rather than not completely servicing the community, says Hinde, the current campus was transformed into housing. “We were housing three senior women, a mom and two children, and we converted our mother-and-child program into emergency housing. We have two houses on our campus that have served different purposes over the years. They’ve been offices, therapy rooms and at one point, they were a donation center,” says Hinde. “We changed that into housing and had a mom and three children in there, so that campus will stay as it is.” Currently, they are used as residences by The Living Room because of the pandemic. The Living Room adapted to the times and continued to serve in the community.
Additionally, the staff and volunteers provided outreach for their existing participants who weren’t able to get meals on campus, by delivering them to all of their identified participants. Staff and volunteers also visited the homeless camps and provided food. Hinde also says that participants could call The Living Room and order emergency supplies or things they need that the program houses on-campus, and staff would continue to provide participants with items, such as food, pet food and supplies. However, it’s by appointment only and requires participants to come in and pick up their items. Or if needed, staff and volunteers would deliver it to where participants were. During the pandemic, staff and volunteers were also able to identify new participants for the program and outreach services are still being offered to existing and new participants—as well as those in camps—despite the campus being closed.
The Living Room is funded by donors who support the program and events. We’re primarily supported by the community, says Pasko, so we take in very little, public money as of up to now. This has allowed them to operate the way they have, but to continue doing so, they must raise funds within the community. Rebecca Rogoway, donor relations officer, agrees with Pasko in that networking and having a great rapport with the community plays an important role in helping fund the organization. “It’s kind of a process of talking to the existing donors and finding out who else they know. It’s a matter of just everyday living The Living Room,” says Rogoway. “Wherever I go, I’m always talking about The Living Room and what I do, and so people are very interested in that. It’s easier to keep the donors you have than to get new ones, so it’s important that our donors are kept informed and feel appreciated. At [the] ‘Loving the Living Room’ [event], we got a lot of new donors, so it’s kind of word-of-mouth.”
Looking to the future
Pasko and Hinde both discussed having several goals to accomplish at The Living Room. They aim to continue serving the program’s participants and to find a new location and re-instate their weekday day program. The organization also hopes to add more services, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) cards, respite care (possibly including respite child care), parenting classes and support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. Another goal is to open a thrift store to offer current participants skills in microenterprise, which would allow women to start their own business and learn new skills. “We’re excited about that. We’re just looking at all the ways women, specifically, can move throughout a community and in their own lives, that’s unique to women. That’s what we’re looking to support and grow,” says Pasko.
According to Hinde, they also hope to add a dental clinic, a veterinary clinic and portable vans that provide showers. As for their new day program, they’re focusing in on the participating women and their children, and how the women can excel through the program. “We will have an area for resting by appointment, if you need to come in or if you stop in. We help a lot of women in emergencies, who are escaping domestic violence. We can provide the rest, but we want to get people in there to receive services, therapy, job counseling and where you can take a shower,” says Hinde. In addition, The Living Room helps buy more houses when they have the capital to do so, and would like to incorporate medical and health services—specifically helping to provide mental health services—and to do more work with area hospitals such as Kaiser Permanente and Providence/St. Joseph Health.
A new campus
It looks like The Living Room won’t have to wait much longer to re-open their day program. Rogoway officially broke the news that they have found a new campus, at 1335 Dutton Avenue in Santa Rosa. The new campus is scheduled to open sometime in March this year. The new campus will be called ‘The Living Room Life Center.’ The staff is elated that they will finally be able to help existing and new participants face-to-face once again after having to shut down their Cleveland/Carrillo campus 22 months ago.
Despite having to make changes and alter services during the pandemic, The Living Room continues to strive in what they know and do best, which is to provide resources and an outlet for women, as well as mothers with their children, while they’re trying to navigate through life and overcome obstacles. And with their new day program re-opening in March, the staff, volunteers and board of directors will continue doing great things for the community and assisting those who need guidance to get back on their own.
How to Help
Besides receiving donations, the community can help to expand and add more services at The Living Room by partnering with them, which can be through volunteerism. The staff uses volunteers as mentors, teachers, to provide customer service, therapy, for special projects, to prepare food, and as musicians and mechanics.
“The volunteerism could be anything…from if you’ve got building skills, ground-keeping skills or it can be personal, one-on-one skills,” says Cindy Pasko, executive director. Sometimes just showing up with a lot of love in your heart and some good sense of judgment is more than enough to make a difference for someone in need.”
Loving the Living Room
On October 10, 2021, The Living Room held its annual fundraiser called ‘Loving The Living Room.’ Led by Kim Hinde, board president, she’s been doing so since she first joined the board of directors in March 2017. She says the event initially started in 2016 as a garden party and silent auction held at the Wild Oak Saddle Club in Santa Rosa. Rebecca Rogoway, donor relations officer, says that this year’s ‘Loving The Living Room’ event raised more than $180,000.
According to Rogoway, the staff is in the preliminary stages of planning another event called ‘Celebrating Women and Those Who Love Them.’ It’s going to be a high tea and champagne event, which is slated for some time in May 2022. The staff is currently working on finding a location and narrowing down the exact date for the event.