The Living Room lifts spirits of Sonoma County’s homeless
There are moments when Celeste Austin feels compelled to bring some levity to her workplace, like when she showed up as her very own fictional character, Penny-Pinching Peppermint Patty.
It was Halloween, and she was in full costume, outrageously attired in a special dress, mink stole, hat and wig. There was plenty of laughter and merriment, enough to take away the burden of homelessness, if only for a few hours.
Austin, 64, serves as director of special programs at The Living Room, a daytime drop-in center assisting homeless and at-risk women and their children.
“I was bringing so much joy and fun to the women,” Austin said of her get-up. “You want to lift them up.”
Austin’s playful humor and warmth help ease the stress for those who use services at the Santa Rosa nonprofit, where staff and volunteers are compassionate, free of judgment and dedicated to helping women maintain their dignity as they strive for housing and self-sufficiency.
The Living Room is Sonoma County’s only daytime program specifically assisting women and children who spend their nights in homeless shelters, sleeping in cars, perhaps occasionally in a motel or staying on friends’ or relatives’ couches - or huddled on the streets.
Its mission is proving a safe place for women in need, along with nutritious meals, clothing and personal goods, and resources that include counseling, referrals and parenting classes. Services are available to help women gain independence, from providing a shared post office box and telephone number for job applications to offering art therapy, smoking cessation classes and opportunities to learn new skills.
Of greatest importance, Austin said, “We have community here.
“They’re finding a recognition they are people who happen to be unsheltered or unhoused. They’re finding they’re not alone, they’re not being looked at and judged like they are out there in the community.”
Austin tries to bring cheer to program participants who often suffer from depression, anxiety and a sense of defeat. More than 90 percent have been victims of domestic violence.
“And people are pissed off,” she said. “People are tired of waiting for a chance when they keep getting doors slammed.”
The issue of homelessness is complex, Austin said. The Living Room provides services to those with a wide range of ages, backgrounds, education and life experiences.
Many are homeless because of foreclosures, loss of jobs, chronic health issues, medical emergencies or lack of affordable rentals. There are shifts in family dynamics; others struggle with addictions or mental health issues.
“People don’t just become homeless because it’s a cool thing to be homeless. It’s complex,” Austin said. “It’s not just one thing or another.”
She speaks before church groups, service clubs and community organizations about The Living Room and the issues of homelessness. She also does outreach and networking, works with community partnerships and helps participants in the agency’s two main service efforts, the Women’s Program and the Mother and Child Program.
Founded in 1993 by The Church of the Incarnation, The Living Room started small but became a separate nonprofit in 2003 to meet the growing demand for services. It moved in May from a small space behind the church to a half-acre complex on Cleveland Avenue with 4,900 square feet of indoor space that includes laundry and shower facilities, and an outdoor area complete with play yard and planting boxes.
The May 2 opening also happened to fall on Austin’s birthday.
“That just added to the day,” she said.
Austin recognizes women’s struggles partly because she endured substantial challenges of her own during her 20s and early 30s.
She grew up in a small town in Iowa, where she attended Luther College and became active in the anti-war movement, served as the college’s first female leader of the Black Student Union and embraced a journey of self-discovery.
By her fourth year at the private liberal arts college, she set aside her goal of becoming a lawyer or comedian. She headed to San Francisco, “totally separating from my family” for several years.
“I came out and dropped out,” she said.
Austin became “poly-addicted” but eventually fought through recovery. She earned an undergraduate degree in ethnic studies from Sonoma State University and a master’s in social work from San Francisco State University. Today she employs her longtime passion to help others.
Austin brings more than 30 years of social services experience to her job, at least 20 working with the homeless. She has been with The Living Room for more than eight years.
“I have always been that social worker, always been that person people can talk to,” she said.
She said she tries to emphasize hope, something that isn’t always easy or well received.
“One thing is, I’m a cheerleader. I cheer you on and give you encouragement to keep going and do one thing,” she said.
For some, that might mean getting an ID, putting together a resume, taking care of a citation or going to a 12-step program.
“We’re constantly encouraging people to celebrate their accomplishments,” she said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as getting to The Living Room that day and getting that support, and getting away from that abuser.”
Open weekdays and staffed by 11 employees, the agency last year provided services to more than 900 homeless and at-risk women and more than 300 children and served 28,000 meals. Its 15-member board and about 150 volunteers donated more than 11,000 hours of service.
“We ease the adversity of homelessness,” Austin said.
It’s a rough road, with fewer and fewer affordable housing units available and the complexities of homelessness making progress hard. The Trump administration is causing further stress, with many participants at The Living Room worried about the quality and availability of health care if President Trump repeals Obamacare.
“People are really on pins and needles,” Austin said. “Right now, the uncertainty is really challenging, and it’s scary.”
She’s quick to point out there is much to gain from participants’ strength in the most challenging of circumstances.
“The women also give a lot. They’re very generous,” Austin said. “This is not one-sided at all.”