‘Tis the Season of Joy. The time of year when we count our blessings. Neighborhoods are sporting signs of festivity all around. Twinkling lights and fresh coats of paint adorn homes. Swathes of fall colors render the scene with an extra helping of cheer. Families gather to celebrate kinship, filling homes with warmth brought on by togetherness. And above all, there is Love – the secret ingredient that makes a house a ‘Home.’
I am holding a set of greeting cards in my hands. They make me smile with their vivid colors and childish renderings of stick figure humans, bugs and nature. Flipping them over I read the names, Anaya, Noe, Kaelyn – the artists who created these beautiful scenes. Ranging in ages between 6 and 10, they are children who live amongst us. What sets them apart from the average child is the fact that they have been or are currently homeless. Their existence has none of the safety or security that calls for celebration.
And yet, there is nothing in the scenes created by their little hands that alludes to their dire reality. These images are bursting with cheerful promise and hope. A playground sits nestled among trees on a glorious sunny day. Flowers abound as butterflies flit about. Children sport smiley faces as they play and enjoy their time outdoors. Houses rest under shady trees beneath an azure sky. The pictures project joy in a manner only a child can depict. It is a way to frame their fervent dreams and hopes. Because reality is often very different from these scenes.
Nandini Gondhalekar is Director of Individual Giving, for LifeMoves, a non-profit organization committed to breaking the cycle of homelessness in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. I met with her at LifeMoves | Haven Family House shelter in Menlo Park. Walking me through the clean, efficiently-run, welcoming premises, Nandini impressed me with her passion for the cause. “I grew up in Mumbai, India. My family is deeply committed to and active in community service, social justice and advocacy. This early experience of volunteerism has profoundly influenced my career and professional decisions,” she says.
For Nandini, bearing witness to discrimination based on poverty and hunger instilled in her a strong sense of community mindedness, and a desire to help address such issues. Poverty, hunger and homelessness are complex social issues; providing effective solutions requires both knowledge and empathy. Nandini’s educational and professional backgrounds have helped with the work she does at LifeMoves.
The Changing Face of Homelessness
We see the homeless everywhere. Holding placards, carting their possessions in shopping carts, inhabiting street corners, and store fronts. Yes, we do see them. But do we really “See” them? Steeped in the drama of our own existence, we seldom stop to consider the hapless souls we share space with in our everyday meanderings.
But the face of homelessness is changing. The boundary of homelessness is no longer limited to a story of mental illness, substance abuse, PTSD or worse. It casts its long shadow across social strata, encompassing people of all ages and backgrounds; many of them work credible jobs, and draw a paycheck but they are still unable to provide a safe home for their families. This is the reality. It is a story that affects human beings across cultural and partisan lines. It is a story of abundance breaking at the seams. It is the sad saga of the American dream gone horribly wrong. The helpless inability of a fully deserving person to create a sanctuary called a ‘Home.‘
Talking to Nandini was a revelation. Citing the many changes occurring in Silicon Valley over the years, she spoke of dramatic cuts in the Federal shelter budget and a radically shifting housing market. How, you may wonder, does this connect to homelessness? Speaking of Silicon Valley alone, one in five households has an average income of $35,000. Many of the families cannot do without the services of public programs for their medical, nutritional and general assistance needs.
“Most of LIfeMoves’ homeless clients are employed. Some of them hold two jobs to make ends meet. If they are not on disability, managing a health issue or a psychiatric condition, they are out there working,” says Nandini. A significant number hold specialized and/or white collar jobs. A majority of the clients seek employment in the service sector. These jobs offer them no benefits. At most, they make $10 or $12 an hour. And this is where the cycle begins.
Silicon Valley has an abundance of new homes being built. Everywhere we look there are billboards advertising the latest community offering the most modern of amenities. For every family that joins the race to make their dream of home ownership a reality, there are at least three fighting a battle to maintain a roof over their heads. “The average monthly rent for a one bedroom apartment in Redwood City nowadays is $2745. Menlo Park or Palo Alto is upwards of $3000! It is very very difficult for a person working a service sector job to afford these rents!”, exclaims Nandini. Many of these families are living in basements, garages, and very often in their vehicles, one precarious step away from the streets. For me personally, this was a jarring realization!
Life Moves – the Organization
An organization whose mission is to break the cycle of homelessness, LifeMoves (formerly InnVision Shelter Network), is the largest non-profit in San Mateo and Santa Clara serving homeless families and individuals. Providing interim/ transitional housing and food since 1987, LifeMoves also provides supportive services that helps residents return to a stable, long term, self-sufficient life. Operating 9 shelters and 8 facilities that include a permanent supportive housing site, they also run a drop-in center in Palo Alto called the Opportunity Services Center, which provides two meals a day, including laundry and shower facilities. Of the approximately 700 people they help every day, roughly half of them are minor children.
LifeMoves runs non-site programs through which they help their clients apply for benefits like Medi-Cal, SSDI and food stamps. They also offer specialized services to veterans and their families, distribute motel vouchers and help people who desperately need emergency assistance if they are at risk of becoming homeless.
As an organization with a long history and a strong infrastructure, LifeMoves takes pride in its therapeutic service model – which takes into consideration the source of homelessness instead of only trying to fix the symptoms. This approach has made a huge positive impact and garnered far-reaching results over the years. Serving over 10,000 homeless individuals and families annually, and providing more than 266,000 nights of safe shelter, LifeMoves has successfully helped 89% of families and 73% of individuals end their cycle of homelessness, change their lives, and return to stable housing in the last year.
The LifeMoves | Haven Family House shelter in Menlo Park is equipped with a well run day-care facility for younger children, an upgraded teen center, and two play areas. It also features a community garden maintained by the residents. Located in a quiet residential area, the shelter has a welcoming air about it. Case workers work with clients and residents, volunteers are busy off-loading supplies and donations and the shelter operates with a well-oiled efficiency.
Walking the quiet halls of LifeMoves | Haven Family House shelter, we met a resident in the laundry room. In a large well lit room lined with washers and dryers, she folded baskets of clothes as she spoke with us, ecstatic about the chance she and her family had been given at LifeMoves. It was such a simple thing – clean laundry free of charge, and it had made such a difference in her life! It is these little things that most of us take for granted everyday.
Nandini spoke about the active volunteer program that keeps LifeMoves and its programs running smoothly. “Homelessness is a reality across the diaspora. It is imperative that we realize the harsh truths in our own backyard. There is always a need for volunteers. Donate in kind, donate your time! Make a financial donation if you can! It will help make a difference,” she urges.
We have had a lot to give thanks for these past months. California has seen depravity and hopelessness with wildfires ravaging entire neighborhoods. This and other events have touched us all, bringing home some harsh truths to reflect upon. As the cooling rain quenches the roaring thirst of the arid land, it clears the grey smog to reveal blue skies once more, bringing with it a reminder of the many lives who have lost so much.
In this ‘Season of Joy’, it behooves us all to consider stepping out of our bubbles, to try and take the first step in making a change in the life of someone other than ourselves.
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.