The Living Room: a safe haven for homeless women in Santa Rosa

Mother Alejandra Garcia and her daughter participate in arts and crafts in The Mother and Child Program at The Living Room.

Nikki Goetz, Social Media Editor

Alejandra Garcia sleeps at an overnight shelter in Santa Rosa. When she’s not there, she’ll take her daughter to a long brown and white building on Cherry Street to an organization called The Living Room.

Women who are homeless or staying with friends or family in a temporary situation and don’t know where to go can hang out at The Living Room. It’s a non-profit organization that helps homeless and at-risk women and children. The Living Room staff talk with those at risk about their current life situations and challenges and then try to support them in areas they need. Women can stay there from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The Living Room’s goal is to help connect women with needed viable resources and to get their basic and fundamental needs met. Funding comes from private groups and events that bring awareness to the organization, such as an annual spaghetti feed.

The Women’s Program provides connections to public resources like telephones, Internet and mailboxes to help women find housing amd jobs. The organization also  provides necessary items for women, such as clothes and blankets.

“[Finding housing] is much harder than it sounds. It’s not just you do one thing and the next thing and magically you’re housed and you’re fine,” said program staffer Pat MacKenzie. “Sonoma County is a very high rent, very high cost of living county and many of our women are really hard workers looking for places to live.”

The center also provides mental health counseling for women with substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, a common combination in the population.

MacKenzie was a part of the Community Health Worker Program at Santa Rosa Junior College, earning her certificate in 2013. She saw homeless people on Mendocino Avenue and wondered what she could do to help them. She donated clothing to the Living Room and did an internship there before she was hired as staff. She facilitates “Seeking Safety” meetings, where participants look at how PTSD and substance abuse can intertwine and trigger each other.

She also helps her manager make sure people in the room are as calm as possible and provide women with food. Women come in with different challenges, such as those who’ve survived domestic violence and childhood abuse.

The Mother and Child Program is a day service that provides a safe environment for mothers and their children, from infants to 18-year-olds. Children have their own space in the back of the building. Outside there’s a jungle gym and a grassy field for kids to run around and play while being watched by moms or volunteers. In the corner is a small, colorful room with toys for kids to play with, small tables to eat at and a rug where the children can read or play.

Mothers receive care from staff, including basic supplies such as baby clothes, bottles and diapers. They also serve breakfast, lunch, snacks and drinks. The program staff offers mothers recommendations for health care, schooling, childcare and nurturing support. Volunteers help with the kids if the mothers are working on resource gathering with staff.

The Living Room has a partnership with Heavenly Treasures thrift stores where women can get two vouchers a month. They can get six to eight pieces of clothing each time. The MAC program also has a kids’ clothing shed that moms can access once a week.

Garcia was told about The Living Room through other women at the shelter where she, her husband and daughter have been staying. She visits The Living Room four times a week with her daughter. When the day is done, her husband picks them up and they wait until they can go back to the overnight shelter.

“Sometimes I wondered where I was going to take my kid to feed her. [The Living Room] has provided us with food and clothes and stuff that we need,” Garcia said.

Jessica Quintero has three children she brings to MAC around three to four times a week. She’s received necessities from the program. When the program is over, she and her kids go back to the Catholic Charities shelter.   

“It’s a place you can come during the day. You can get fed. I have received strollers, clothing and other resources and it helps,” Quintero said.

Jen Parr, program coordinator for MAC Program, has worked there for eight months. She holds a place in her heart for women and children in need as she also grew up with a single mother in poverty.

Among other tasks she helps mothers seeking health care and education for themselves and their children and communicates with the staff and volunteers to make sure everything runs smoothly and safely.

“One of the things I love about The Living Room is that there really is a community here,” Parr said. “The other side of that, which is the difficult part, is if people are still here, it means they are still homeless and we have an increasing number of people who need our services. The housing prices in this country are so bad that even people who have full-time jobs and no families can barely afford housing.”

Homelessness is a major struggle, especially in Sonoma County with high housing and rental prices.

The Living Room is a grain of hope for women, offering necessities to support them in difficult life circumstances.