Albion Monitor /News

Sonoma County Homeless Protest

by Lois Pearlman

Slap in the face from Sonoma County board of supervisors

Sitting on the lawn of the Sonoma County administration center during a two day sleep-in and rally held June 10 and 11, Robin Vandergest describes herself as "very hopeless and very bitter." Since May, she has devoted her full energy to organizing the sleep-in and the march and rally that proceeded it, all to underscore her struggle for her own future, as well as the rights of her homeless compatriots.

According to Vandergest, the purpose of the demonstration was to protest the board of supervisors' rejection of a project to convert the former Holiday Inn on Santa Rosa Avenue into a shelter and support center for homeless single men and women. The center would have provided 104 single occupancy units, an emergency shelter to replace the armories that are scheduled to be closed after this winter, and facilities for job training, homeless services and social services.

The board's veto was especially painful to proponents of the center who had worked years to line up funding and support from a variety of organizations and municipalities, including $3.9 million worth of housing vouchers from the federal Housing and Urban Development program (HUD). With every city in Sonoma County, willing to pay its share (except Cloverdale), the project was a done deal waiting only for $628,000 from the county.

But merchants, developers and others in southwest Santa Rosa, who are in the process of renovating and redeveloping the area, opposed the project. So, when officials from Burbank Housing and Catholic Charities brought the proposal before the board of supervisors April 16, the board shot it down, saying it did not want services for the homeless concentrated in one area.

It was the slap in the face from their own county supervisors that spurred this group of mostly homeless people into action. Tired of being told that nobody wants them in their neighborhood, and fearing the loss of the armory shelters in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, they organized a march and rally that culminated into a two-day sleep-in at the county center.

Payments are all but guaranteed to keep her homeless, no matter what kind of job she obtains

Vandergest's own story illustrates the bind that many County homeless face. For eight months last year, she earned over $400 a week working as project secretary for the county's new jail addition, but she still wasn't making enough money to get herself off the street.

There were two reasons for her predicament. First, she couldn't come up with the approximately $2,000 required to secure a new rental in Sonoma County, while living in her van and eating in restaurants. Also slicing into her earnings was the $300 per month in child support she was ordered to pay -- to a husband she had fled when he threatened to kill her.

A woman with chutzpah and intelligence, Vandergest is a college graduate and former at-home mom who lost her home when she left her abusive husband. Because her husband is not a threat to their children, and she did not want to subject the youngsters to life on the streets, she left them with their father.

Despite her homelessness, Vandergest has court-ordered visitation rights that allow her to spend three Sundays per month with her three sons, plus individual time with each of them on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Her goal is to get a job, a home and joint custody.

But this spring, as her temporary job with the new jailhouse was coming to an end, Superior Court Judge Cerena Wong upped Vandergest's child support payments to $864, a sum that is all but guaranteed to keep her homeless, no matter what kind of job she obtains in the future.

"Once you're on the streets, you've got the homeless virus."

Sticking his head out of a sleeping bag at 6:30 in the morning, Kevin Wilson was reluctant to speak about himself, his role as last-minute organizer of the homeless demonstration, or anything else. But, with a little persuasion, he began to talk.

With five months of sobriety under his belt, Wilson is putting his life back together again, and organizing the protest is one of the ways he is doing it. A former drug addict, steam-fitter and truck driver, he lost his place in a recovery program in San Jose a couple of years ago when he ran out of money.

Traveling to Santa Rosa to live with some friends, he got another job, and was ready to move into his own apartment when he was injured at work. Right now he is collecting Workmen's Compensation and waiting to go back to his job, but he says that with his bad credit it will be hard to find another place to live, even when he has the money.

A handsome African-American, who looks more like the tradesman he was than the homeless person he has become, Wilson says he is disturbed by the negative stereotyping of homeless people, even by his own acquaintances.

"Just because a person's homeless doesn't mean that they're bad people, or they don't try every day," he said.

Diana Anglero, who lived on the streets with her two young sons during 1987 and 1988, joined in the conversation to help dispel some of the myths about homeless people.

"Being homeless is many different things," explained Anglero. "The majority of homeless people sleep in garages or on couches at their friends' homes, or in their own cars or vans.

"A lot of times you can't see who's homeless," added Wilson. "You get people who just hide out because they get tired of being judged. Once you're on the streets, you're plagued, you've got the homeless virus."

Few opportunities to escape homelessness

Wilson and Anglero agreed that, while a lot of mentally ill patients were dumped onto the streets when Ronald Reagan was governor, mental illness, alcoholism and drug abuse are often a result of being homeless, rather than a cause.

"About six months after becoming homeless I started drinking," said Anglero. "I'd fill out rental applications for three days, and then when nothing happened I'd drink for three days.'

She said she learned not to take her sons, who are part African-American, with her when she went to look for a place, because people would refuse to rent to her when they saw the children. She also discovered how to sneak into the Santa Rosa Junior college gym to use the showers, and spent most of her time trying to figure out how she was going to feed her kids, and where they would spend the night.

"The reason I was homeless so long was because the only place I could rent was a tiny two room place in a drug-infested neighborhood, and I didn't want to raise my children there," she said.

Eventually, Anglero was able to move into a home that her mother purchased for her, but she still has nightmares about being on the streets. She says that homeless people have very little chance of rising above their predicament, unless they have have caring family members like she does, or someone else to give them a break.

"I would never be homeless again," she says in summation. "I would barricade myself and shoot at the police."

Ironically, supervisors were approving plans to spend over $29 million on new criminal justice buildings

As the sun rose higher and hotter in the sky the demonstrators arose to clean and groom themselves, and indulge in some coffee and donuts provided by the local chapter of "Food not Bombs."

At about 9 am a group from the demonstration walked into the board of supervisors' regular Tuesday meeting, and the supervisors allotted them some time to speak.

Ironically, at the moment that the demonstrators appeared, supervisors were approving plans to expand and remodel the Sheriff's building, the Hall of Justice where the courts are housed, and the Public Defender's office, to the tune of over $29 million.

When homeless advocates objected to supervisors spending so much money on crime and punishment, since they were unwilling to spend a much more modest sum on a homeless shelter, supervisors pointed out that the money comes from specially designated funds that can't be used for anything else.

And the homeless demonstrators also objected to the county's newly formalized policy on dealing with homelessness that emphasizes putting money into programs to prevent homelessness, like rent subsidies, and "homeless projects that are distributed throughout the county rather than large centralized projects."

"There are people who need housing right now," said Anglero. "How are we going to replace that 104 units that could have been opened this fall?"

Supervisors won't meet with homeless demontrators

A few days later, when asked how supervisors were responding to their confrontation with the demonstrators, Fifth District supervisor Ernie Carpenter said they had taken a number of steps. They had appointed director of the county's Office of Commissions, Lorene Irizary, as their liaison with the homeless, and met with officials from Burbank Housing to come up with a plan for keeping the $3.9 million worth of HUD vouchers in the county.

Carpenter also said the board was working with the city of Santa Rosa to provide an alternative for single homeless people after the armory is closed. But, according to Carpenter, the board does not have any plans to meet with the homeless demonstrators themselves

"We have to deliver some units for single residents," said Carpenter. "I think the demonstration serves to point out that the issue is not going to go away.

Yet, Arnold Sternberg, who heads the nonprofit Burbank Housing development corporation, says the county's plan for replacing the Holiday Inn project is for Burbank Housing to purchase some low-income apartment buildings in Roseland, turn out the current tenants, and turn them into homeless centers.

Then he called the supervisors a couple of unprintable names, and indicated that their plan is not a good one.

"The supervisors pretty much blew us off"

A week after the demonstration Vandergest was still organizing away, this time working to establish links with homeless advocates in Santa Cruz who are demonstrating against a policy that makes it illegal to spend the night in city parks.

Asked about what she thought of the Santa Rosa demonstration, she commented, "The supervisors pretty much blew us off."

On the positive side she said there is one thing that she would like the general public to understand about being homeless in Sonoma County that she feels has been left out of the news reports. Vandergest praises places like the Homeless Service Center, where homeless people can bathe, do their laundry, make phone calls and receive messages, as the vital link to a better life.

"The only reason I was able to get a job and maintain it was because of the Homeless Service Center. If people want to know what they can do for the homeless, they can support the centers," she suggested.

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Albion Monitor June, 1996 (

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