SAN JOSE — Yolanda Estrada and Bree Martinez finally caught a break when a group of churches agreed to take homeless, fragile women like them off the mean streets during this winter of El Niño. Their blessings include warm blankets and cots, home-cooked meals, showers, Internet access and — most of all — love without judgment. But the people of God cannot guarantee results.
“We’re both scared at this point,” Estrada said at a dinner table at Willow Glen First Methodist last week. Sitting at her side, munching nervously on salt crackers and cheese, Martinez added, “We’re very grateful. No matter what happens, we have love and a family here. But it’s all going to end in six weeks, and I’m afraid I’ll end up back on the streets.”
The two women have reached the halfway point in a spiritual, gutsy attempt by the faith community to do something about chronic homelessness in the mega wealthy valley of microchips. From January to April, four churches will shelter a group of 15 homeless women for about a month each. Two other churches provide “daytime warming centers.” Behind the scenes, San Jose City Hall cut the red tape and fast-tracked the project.
The idea is to give the homeless women — who all suffer from physical or mental health ailments, or both — a safe and nurturing environment at night, resources during the day to look for permanent housing, and the energy and time to keep their crucial medical appointments.
The church rotation is part of the Winter Faith Collaborative, an interfaith group that has signed up 16 churches in the city to open their doors overnight or during the day this winter to 200 homeless people. The church rotation is unique because the chosen 15 women were at risk of great harm or even death this winter.
My first East Side/West Side column on this project brimmed with high hopes as the women settled into Holy Spirit Catholic Church, the first parish in line. For a midterm report card, I visited them last week at First Methodist, second in line.
Four women have found permanent housing, but two dropped out. Most who remain are stuck in long, hopeless waiting lists for public or subsidized private housing. They clutch their cellphones near for calls from prospective employers. Their giddy optimism at Holy Spirit has given way to anxious hope at First Methodist.
“You can’t give up,” said Della Crews, 56, who suffers from acute asthma and traumatic stress disorder. She spent the past two years on the streets. When she’s not working on her goals, Crews relaxes by making earrings and bracelets in the daytime warming centers. “I’ve been through a lot, but homeless has been the worst.”
Most of the women are too shy, embarrassed, suspicious, guarded or private to share their personal stories and plight. Those willing to put their lives out there told me that they’re on a daily emotional roller coaster in the middle of this journey.
For example, Martinez missed out on a new Santa Clara County housing program for homeless people in and out of emergency rooms, psychiatric holding pens or jail.
“I was devastated when I didn’t get it,” said the 22-year-old Martinez, a former teenage runaway who suffers from severe depression. Then, three days after she fretted over dinner at First Methodist, I heard from the church that she would be moving out soon. She had found a stable housing arrangement near downtown San Jose and would be attending a local community college.
Estrada, 49, had her own up-and-down story. She lost everything several years ago after the sudden death of her husband and falling into a profound, debilitating depression. A few weeks ago, Estrada said, she was taken to a local hospital emergency room with severe abdominal pain. Doctors there never figured out the problem, she said, and released her at 4 a.m. — with only her pajamas to wear and no one to pick her up.
“That’s when I realized I was alone, really alone,” Estrada said. The humiliating discharge and loneliness sent her into the deepest funk since joining the church shelter rotation.
But then, and from sheer persistence, she received a telephone call just the other day at a warming center at St. Francis Episcopal Church. An agency wanted to hire her for a part-time job caring for elderly victims of Alzheimer’s disease. Could she start Monday?
“That’s my birthday!” she shouted into the phone. “Of course I can start on my birthday.”
She flashed a smile wider than Silicon Valley’s income gap. Estrada was halfway there. She had found a job. What she needed next was a place of her own. Then the roller coaster started up again.
“Yes, I found a job, but how am I going to keep this job without housing and stability?” she asked out loud in the daytime warming center.
But she was smiling through the worry.