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Antidote for Sonoma County homelessness: Homes, job training

Calla Cohen, the Sanctuary House coordinator, and Kailey Kegney, a Sanctuary House resident, paint the walls of a Habitat for Humanity home under construction on Tuesday, July 26, 2016 in Cotati, California . (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

GUY KOVNER,

Mateo Swaim-Brouwer, 21, shoveled gravel in the hot sun Tuesday at a home under construction on a Cotati cul-de-sac. It was manual labor, without pay, rewarded only by a pizza lunch break with his co-workers.

Swaim-Brouwer, wearing a neon green Habitat for Humanity T-shirt, was happy to be there. A simple matter of payback, he said, recalling the six months he and his mother were homeless, living in a shelter and on the streets of Santa Rosa.

The two-bedroom wood-frame home, beige with white trim, will soon house Jasmine Palmer and her two daughters in Habitat for Humanity’s 23rd home built in Sonoma County since 1984.

Having a roof overhead is “not something you take for granted when you’ve been homeless,” said Swaim-Brouwer, who grew up in Sonoma County and graduated from Ridgway High School in 2012. There’s an element of freedom to homelessness, he said, but it’s “not worth the cold nights and empty stomach.”

For nearly three years, Swaim-Brouwer has lived under the roof at Sanctuary House, a four-bedroom home in Cotati for young adults 18 to 24 coping with trauma, mental health challenges and potential homelessness. It’s one of the Community Support Network’s nine homes that provide services to nearly 200 people a year.

“They help me keep things in order, prioritize my life a little bit,” Swaim-Brouwer said. “I really had no adult life skills, other than basic survival,” he said, when he arrived at Sanctuary House.

Calla Cohen, the Community Support Network staffer who supervises the house, said it provides a safe, secure place for residents to develop “positive coping skills” and ultimately to make the transition to independent living.

“I see them growing while they’re there,” she said, before adding a note of reality. “We have lots of ups and downs. It’s not flowers and rainbows all the time.”

Swaim-Brouwer and another resident, Kailey Kegney, 19, walked from Sanctuary House to the Habitat for Humanity house for a voluntary work detail. She took a break from painting a bedroom wall to express satisfaction with helping finish a home for a mother of two, reminding Kegney of her own childhood with her mother and sister.

“Three of us against the world,” Kegney said.

She and her sister “fought like cats and dogs” as youngsters but are now close friends.

Soon, she said, two sisters will share a bedroom just as the two of them did. Kegney, who brought a batch of cookies to the worksite, said she had been couch-hopping before moving into Sanctuary House in October.

The crossover between the two housing programs came two weeks after Che Casul, a Habitat for Humanity community development manager, visited Sanctuary House intent on recruiting volunteers. By coincidence, it involved a reunion with Swaim-Brouwer, who had participated in a job-training course with Buckelew Programs, a North Bay behavioral health service provider for which Casul previously worked.

Following a barista training program, Swaim-Brouwer got a job a year ago as a waiter-barista at a cafe in downtown Cotati, now the longest stint of employment he has ever had.

“I’m here today because of Che. He’s a pretty cool guy,” Swaim- Brouwer said.

Casul said he watched Swaim-Brouwer gain employment skills, such as punctuality, during his time with Buckelew. “He just needed guidance,” Casul said. “He took every piece of advice we gave him. Now he’s turning into a responsible adult, just like everybody else.”

Swaim-Brouwer said his long-term goals are “a bit iffy,” but he is saving money in hopes of moving into his own apartment. He’s grateful for Sanctuary House’s support, but with four other residents sharing three bathrooms and a small kitchen, the place is short on privacy and solitude, he said.

Meanwhile, Casul’s visit proved a success, as all five residents volunteered to help finish the home on the cul-de-sac.

“Homeless at-risk youth coming together to build houses for at-risk folks,” he said. “Is there anything better?”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.