Sandoval: women who heal and promote hope
One of my earliest memories as a case manager was meeting a young woman who had just experienced her first night homeless. Over the years that have passed, I no longer remember his face, the color of his hair, his figure, or even his age.
But I remember his shoes. They were threadbare, the soles coming off the toes and wet from the rain of the previous night. I remember her surprised expression and her shaky voice, surprising herself to admit that she had nowhere to go the night before. All night she had been terrified, refusing to stop for a moment for fear of her safety. After walking in the dark for hours, she was exhausted, hoping to find refuge in our reception center.
According to 2020 Data, 223,578 women are homeless in the United States. Women face unique challenges and vulnerabilities that can exacerbate the risks of homelessness, including intimate partner violence, health issues, family needs, and more.
Transgender women are more likely to face ongoing discrimination at each phase in their search for accommodation. While homeless, women have specialized health care and hygiene needs which, when left unaddressed, can lead to significant financial and health complications. It goes without saying that women are susceptible to violence during this period of fragility.
Yet women overcome these obstacles and often lead the charge to improve their communities. During this year’s Women’s History Month, PATH honored the variety of ways women “bring healing and promote hope.” By raising the voices of PATH participants, staff, and partners, we celebrate their diverse contributions to our shared mission to end homelessness.
I had the pleasure of speaking with two of these women warriors – Terrel J. and Ericka M. – two residents of a permanent PATH supportive housing community. These generous women sat down with me this month to share their thoughts on the importance of friendship, female leadership, and the power they have internally and collectively.
Ericka flashes an infectious wide smile at Terrel as they reminisce about their first weekend after moving to Villas on the Park. At first, when only the first inhabitants had moved in, they ventured to the roof where they met. They grew closer over time, attending workshops and groups on site and seeing each other around the building. Looking at them now, they have the unmistakable chemistry of something closer than friendship – they’re family.
They know each other’s rhythms; they consult each other every morning, at noon and before going to bed. Ericka is the proud aunt of Terrel’s puppy: a toy poodle/chihuahua mix. In their free time, they eat meals together at their favorite places in the neighborhood; when I ask for their favorite, they can’t land on just one place – they rattle off the names of a variety of local cafes, buffets, and Chinese food establishments.
“If I don’t hear something (from her), something is wrong,” they both agree.
“She calms me down,” Ericka says of Terrel. I witnessed it myself during our conversation: as Ericka ponders a particularly difficult medical experience, Terrel anticipates Ericka’s needs and hands her a handkerchief at the right time.
A new medical diagnosis can be traumatic for anyone, but for Ericka, it gave her a sense of power. While homeless, she had been denied referrals from specialists – ironic, given that her health complications were one of the contributing factors to her homelessness. Earlier in the week, the two women had spoken as advocates with a local healthcare provider where they highlighted barriers to medical care while homeless and made recommendations on how to improve care. .
Both women spend much of their free time in various advisory groups, providing information to providers and local officials about their experiences and how to improve care for homeless people. Ericka is also a commissioner for the Santa Clara County Housing Authority. Now, she advises developers to implement ADA-accessible policies to ensure people with disabling conditions are safely housed in their new homes. Her commitment to the cause shows in our own conversation, where she made a recommendation for our own on-site emergency protocols.
“You don’t always want to show up, but you do,” admits Ericka. Her medical needs, especially around her new diagnosis, may depress her. “I do it because I compelled my community to show up.”
Terrel is also committed to her neighbors at Villas on the Park. She attends many on-site groups, volunteering for holidays and special events. “Every day I see people who need help. I do what I can to help someone.
“I never thought I would have experienced this, ever in a million years,” Ericka recalls, echoing the sentiments of the woman I met many years before. She is proud of her work as a local leader and activist. “I don’t want others to experience everything I’ve done.”
When asked what messages they have for women coming out of homelessness, Terrel applauds their courage and perseverance, paying particular attention to their safety, hygiene and mental health needs. These women serve as a beacon, signaling strength to those going through a difficult situation.
“Don’t give up,” urges Terrel. “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”
San José Spotlight columnist Laura Sandoval is regional director of PATH San Jose, a homeless services and housing development agency. She is also a licensed clinical social worker with over a decade of experience. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month. Contact Laura at [email protected]