New homeless service headquarters for The Living Room needs overhaul

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The Living Room, a Santa Rosa nonprofit organization that offers daytime services to about 1,200 homeless women and children a year, has run out of space at its facility on Cherry Street and hopes to move in June to a new location on Cleveland Avenue.

Escrow just closed on the half-acre property with four buildings and a yard, said Cheryl Parkinson, executive director of the agency, founded 21 years ago by the Church of the Incarnation and now an independent organization.

The catch is significant: The property needs about $350,000 worth of improvements, including $150,000 for a commercial kitchen, and The Living Room is seeking donations to pay for the work, Parkinson said.

“We’re over capacity now,” she said, and the demand for service — from women sleeping outside and in cars, as well as mothers with children who must leave shelters in the morning — keeps growing.

Parkinson blamed a shortage of affordable housing for swelling the homeless ranks in a county where rents have soared beyond the means even of people with full-time jobs.

“People are homeless longer because it’s hard harder to get into housing,” she said.

Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, said an improving economy has boosted rents and contributed to a low apartment vacancy rate, reported last month at less than 3 percent countywide.

More than half of the families staying at her agency’s Family Support Center on A Street have jobs but can’t afford a rental, even with help paying the security deposit and monthly rent, Holmes said. The 138-bed shelter holds about 40 families, consisting of at least one adult and one or more children, and has 48 families on a waiting list, she said Tuesday.

Rents have climbed 30 percent over the past three years in Sonoma County, reaching an average of $1,579 this summer, according to Real Answers, a Novato firm that tracks larger apartment complexes.

Landlords and planning officials attribute the increase to short supply. Over the past three years, the county has added 18,000 jobs, while construction of apartment units has lagged far behind demand, county officials said.

Holmes said the tight rental market conditions favor landlords, who can be more selective about tenants, making it tougher for people who have a job loss, eviction or credit card default on their record.

People receiving government-funded housing assistance, known as Section 8 vouchers, have trouble finding landlords who will accept them, Parkinson said.

The Living Room was started by Church of the Incarnation members who noticed that homeless women were on the streets after overnight shelters closed, she said. It now offers a “safe, sheltered place,” along with classes and support services for women and a “mother and child” parenting program in a converted garage.

Breakfast is served to about 55 people a day, followed by lunch for about 70 women and children.

The Living Room, which operates on an annual budget of about $400,000, receives less than 15 percent of its funding from government sources, Parkinson said. The rest comes from individual donations, foundation grants and “a lot of fundraising,” she said.

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

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