At night, 2-year-old Christopher Moreno Jr. sleeps in a car with his mother, a hardship that is becoming increasingly common among the North Coast’s homeless population.
But in the morning, Christopher happily pushes a plastic truck down a breezeway, stumbling at times when the toy rolls a little faster than his legs move. If he falls, his “aunties” at the Living Room, a local day service center for homeless women and children, are there to pick him up.
Five days a week, between 8:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., the toddler, his mother and scores of other homeless women and children find breakfast, clothing, diapers and lunch at this daytime sanctuary, which for 23 years has been housed in a small school-like campus behind the Church of the Incarnation in downtown Santa Rosa.
The nonprofit center, which rents space from the church, now has a home of its own at 1207 Cleveland Ave., less than a mile from its current location on Cherry Street off Mendocino Avenue. The new location — a half-acre complex with 4,900 square feet of indoor space in five buildings — will allow the Living Room to expand its services.
“It is so important. If I don’t have a place to go or don’t have any money, I come here,” said Christopher’s mother, Veronica Reyes, 32. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have anything to eat then.”
Reyes, who was born and raised in Santa Rosa, said she’s been homeless since 2014 when she lost her Section 8 voucher, or low-income rental subsidy. She’s been “bouncing around” in Mendocino County and recently lived in Las Vegas. About a year ago, she returned to Santa Rosa and has been living in a car her mother loaned her.
“I’m 100 percent on my own with” Christopher, she said, adding that the cost of renting a room in Sonoma County is anywhere from $650 to $700 a month, and beyond her reach.
The Church of the Incarnation started the center in 1993 and ran it as a mission on a shoestring budget, serving instant Ramen noodles and providing limited services to homeless women as an alternative to spending daytime hours at the library, mall or on a park bench. It gained its independence in 2003, when it earned tax-exempt nonprofit status, and has been renting the space ever since.
Pastor Jim Richardson, who heads Incarnation, said the center had long outgrown the elementary school-like campus behind the church. He said the Living Room’s growth is testament to a tragic unmet need in the community.
“The Living Room has done miracles with our facility but they have definitely outgrown our space,” Richardson said. Church members, he said, will continue to support the center with volunteer work and financial contributions, and “in that sense it will still be part of us.”
Cheryl Parkinson, executive director of the Living Room, said the center is now seeing more women with a higher level of mental illness. Before, clients tended to be younger women and children, people who were “between housing.”
What hasn’t changed, she said, is the underlying domestic violence that many women at the Living Room experience. About 90 percent of the center’s clients are exposed to domestic violence, Parkinson said.