In the beginning, helping the homeless was a meaningful way for Jennielynn Holmes to earn a few dollars on her way to putting herself through law school.
Then she met a little girl named Hannah, who showed her how a stable home and hope can transform a life. It reset the course of Holmes’ own life.
Hannah, 7, had been deserted by her mother and was newly homeless when she and two older siblings first came with their grandma to seek help from Catholic Charities of the Santa Rosa Diocese, where Holmes had begun working months earlier in 2009.
With her world in a backpack, Hannah was a portrait of heartbreak: scared and confused, unable to look other people in the eye. She’d been out of school for an extended period and appeared, Holmes recalled, deeply lonely and profoundly afraid.
“She was dealing with the feelings that, ‘My mom doesn’t love me enough to take care of me,’ ” Holmes said.
But at the Catholic Charities’ family shelter, Hannah got a safe place to sleep, enough to eat, a tutor to help her catch up in school, and the faith and support of people who cared. And she began to shine.
The day Holmes heard Hannah run down the hall toward her office, waving a progress report filled with A’s and B’s, was “the moment I figured out this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Holmes said.
“Miss Jennie,” Hannah asked her, “do you want a copy that you can hang on your wall to see all the time?”
With that, Holmes said, “I was in.”
In the eight years since, Holmes, 31, has emerged as Sonoma County’s most visible champion of the unsheltered — an indefatigable leader in the campaign to address and eliminate homelessness, a goal that she does not consider beyond reach.
As director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the region’s largest nonprofit homeless services provider, Holmes manages a widening array of housing and aid programs, and oversees nearly half of all emergency shelter beds in the county, including the two largest shelters between the Golden Gate Bridge and Oregon.
She also is a driving force behind evolving local government policies, practices and partnerships designed to fast-track permanent housing for those in need of shelter so they can benefit from treatment of mental illness, addiction and trauma. When successful, the intervention can break the cycle of homelessness.
The post she holds at Catholic Charities “is a job,” Holmes said.
“But it’s not a job for me. It’s more than that. It’s a personal mission.”
Advocacy fueled by empathy
Raised in Santa Rosa and a graduate of Rincon Valley Christian School, Holmes was the first in her family to attend college, at UC Davis, where in 2008 she came away with a major in history and minors in Spanish and sociology. Last year, while working, she earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of San Francisco.
Her strength, according to those familiar with her work, lies in part in her profound ability to empathize with others, her command of the complex social and structural issues at play in homelessness, and her eagerness to turn nearly everyone into a partner. She is relied upon as a regional expert on homelessness and often as a leader who converts strategy into action, largely through contracts with the county and its largest city, Santa Rosa.