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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.

Behind all of it, admirers say, is a tremendous heart and joyful approach that are transparent to anyone she meets.

“When you love what you do, it shows in everything that you do every day,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, a former Sonoma County supervisor. “And that’s Jennielynn Holmes … She’s outstanding at what she does, because it’s who she is.”

Holmes said she’s driven by “dissatisfaction with the fact that people are homeless.”

“If there was an earthquake or a fire or a natural disaster and this many people were suffering, it would be ‘all hands on deck,’ ” she said.

Holmes has been at the center of often tense discussions concerning the increasing visibility of large homeless camps under freeway overpasses in close proximity to Catholic Charities’ downtown homeless service center, as well as the Redwood Gospel Mission and St. Vincent De Paul dining room near Railroad Square.

She also was in the thick of an angry outcry over a proposal by the First United Methodist Church to allow a limited number of people to camp on the church’s 7-acre property in west Santa Rosa through a special program authorized by the city.

Yet, even in the fraught space of outspoken neighbors fed up with nuisances stemming from homeless activity, Holmes is known for her willingness to listen to residents’ concerns.

“You don’t feel like you’re getting told what she wants you to think,” said Denise Hill, a resident and representative of the St. Rose Historic District, a downtown neighborhood that’s been heavily affected this winter by an unprecedented rise in overpass encampments. “She’s very much open to dialogue, which is nice.”

Ambassador for the destitute

Her central role has come into focus as local governments grapple with a problem that appears to be growing, if not in the number of homeless residents — there are about 3,000 according to the latest figures — then in their clearer visibility and pressing needs.

At the same time, the cost of housing in the Bay Area and crunch on low-income residents amid skyrocketing rents are changing the face of homelessness, leaving many more vulnerable to forces that could push them out onto the street.

Holmes is a nearly all-hours liaison between those unfortunate people, their advocates, government officials and just about anybody else who has an opinion or role in addressing the issue.

“She’s certainly an advocate for the homeless, but I don’t think she tries to sugarcoat anything,” said Santa Rosa attorney Paul Miller, who became acquainted with Holmes because of his concerns about the proposed homeless camp at the Methodist church, which adjoins his property. He now serves alongside her on the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber’s Downtown Advocacy Task Force.

“I think she’s looking for solutions and not offering up excuses,” he said.

More recently, she’s been working with Santa Rosa police and chamber of commerce leaders to explore opportunities for engaging homeless individuals in the upkeep and preservation of the city’s newly reunified Old Courthouse Square, a large public space set to open later this month. Already, the downtown project is raising fears it will quickly be overtaken by transients.

Holmes doesn’t deny that concern exists. Homeless people have the same rights as others to use the public space. “They’re not going to be kept out,” she said. “But there’s a balance,” she said, noting that all users will share responsibility for keeping the square clean, safe and welcoming.

She’s toured the space recently, in a hard hat, to discuss with police, downtown merchants and others how to go about managing the square. A volunteer corps organized through the Homeless Service Center — it has already collected 25,000 pounds of trash from downtown Santa Rosa this year, largely at the overpass camps — is on tap for cleanup after the April 29 opening ceremony at the square.

The challenge, she said, “is how do we make it successful?”

Holmes is not afraid to acknowledge that specific individuals who are homeless are sometimes responsible for socially inappropriate behavior, public nuisances and even criminal conduct. But it’s often a reflection of the hardships of living without permanent shelter and security, and the problems don’t stem from all those who experience homelessness, she said.

For most who are homeless, “it’s a rare and brief event, and it’s not repeated,” she said.

The bad actors often get worse because their problems, including chronic physical and mental health issues, aren’t treated.

Homelessness “is a social inequity,” Holmes said. “It’s a social injustice. And it’s a system failure.”

An unexpected calling

The job at Catholic Charities was supposed to be a stopover for her on the way to law school. She had no real exposure to the problem of homelessness at the time the nonprofit hired her as an employment coach in 2009. She was working part time at a corporate bank and a local insurance agency when she decided to seek out something more fulfilling and picked up a third job.

She’s still not sure why Catholic Charities hired her and admits coming on board with the typical misconceptions about the clients she would be serving.

One of the people she worked with at the beginning, David Meyer, was a cook at Samuel L. Jones Hall, a large shelter in west Santa Rosa. He remembers how clearly “out of her element” Holmes appeared at first.

“I don’t think she’d ever dealt with homeless people before in her life, and she wasn’t timid, but she was meek,” he said.

But after about a month, Holmes found her footing, using her forthrightness and sincerity to win people over, said Meyer, now a resident at The Palms Inn. The Santa Rosa Avenue motel was converted into permanent housing for more than 104 formerly homeless veterans and others.

“From the gate, I trusted Jennielynn,” said Meyer, 59. “She has that aura about her that she puts out just total confidence in what she’s asking, what she’s doing, and she makes you feel comfortable. And then, when you get in your comfort zone, that’s when she can start peeling away your layers.”

People just “gravitate toward Jennielynn,” he said.

Holmes spent many evenings at Sam Jones, a shelter for single and coupled adults, which allowed her to get to know and care for a large number of people, seeing into their circumstances and beyond stereotypes that often color homelessness.

As the only Sam Jones counselor at that time, Holmes found herself offering guidance on subjects well outside of job searches and resumes. And by the time she met Hannah, she had been hired full time and moved her main office to the Family Support Center on A Street, a busy hub for Catholic Charities, where she taught job-skills classes and started an after-school program to help frequently dislocated children keep up in school.

Holmes said she began to understand that homelessness was a symptom of something larger going on in a person’s life, and that no two individuals share exactly the same experience. She also began to understand the chronic impact of living on the streets — of stresses such as sleep deprivation and the need for constant vigilance against violence. About three-quarters of homeless people have suffered some type of trauma in their lives. More than half have brain injuries, she said. With the added pressure of living without safe and secure shelter, it’s common to lose any sense that there’s another way to live, she said

“It’s not really a ‘choice,’ ” she said, tracing air quotes with her fingers during a wide-ranging interview this month at Brew coffee, a few blocks from her office.

After the 2009 encounter with Hannah, Holmes shelved her plans for law school and delved deeper into a study of homelessness and housing.

She described it as “going full bore into, ‘How can I be the best I can be at this?’ ”

Constant dedication

Still, in 2011, she said she was as surprised as everyone else when, at age 25, she was tapped to manage Catholic Charities family shelter and housing programs. A year later, she was named director of shelter and housing.

There was some feeling in the organization that in promoting her to such a high-profile role, Chuck Fernandez, then executive director of Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, now CEO of the agency’s East Bay operation, “had lost his mind,” she said.

But Fernandez said he knew he’d made the right pick, even if Holmes needed to develop some of her administrative skills.

“Even at such an early age, she was so creative, so innovative, so passionate, and so believed in the homeless cause that Jennie just stood out heads and tails above everybody else,” Fernandez said. “Jennie had already proven herself, and she accepted the homeless for who they were. She didn’t pass judgment. She believed in them, and she cared for them. I mean she truly cared for them.”

Her responsibilities at Catholic Charities extend across six counties, and include operations in Napa and Humboldt counties, though much of the work is concentrated in central Sonoma County.

Her department budget of more than $6 million supports about 20 programs, including street outreach and case management underwritten with city, county, state and federal funds. The agency last year housed 686 people, almost double the number in any other previous year, Holmes said.

Her days are typically packed from early morning into evenings with meetings and phone calls, administrative duties and events. As often as she can, she helps with outreach at the agency’s Homeless Service Center on Morgan Street or at street encampments.

Work-life balance, so far, has eluded her, though her husband of five years, Darren Davis, a county park ranger, apparently understands. The couple were friends in high school and started dating later.

Holmes speaks at the same high rate in which she operates. She’s never without her two cellphones, both of which seem to light up with calls and text messages every other minute.

But she seems consistently able and willing to squeeze in one more conversation or coffee. Though her office, along with those of other Catholic Charities executives, is located in the agency headquarters in northwest Santa Rosa, Holmes insists on maintaining a space at the downtown family shelter so she can stay close to the people she serves.

‘Re-instilling hope’

On a recent visit to the Morgan Street service center, she was widely greeted with smiles and hugs.

She met briefly with staff and clients, freely gave out her phone number and caught up on other developments. She reserved much of her time to zero in on several individuals whose needs appeared particularly urgent.

One man, a diabetic with a badly infected hand and an amputated leg, needed medical attention and a safe place to sleep. For reasons that weren’t clear, he had given up a spot at Sam Jones shelter a few days earlier. But Holmes said she didn’t need to know why, as long as he was now receptive to help.

She “always meets people where they are and leads them to envision the way that things could be better,” said a one-time client named Ann, now a student at Santa Rosa Junior College.

“So often, people in that situation, that’s all they know,” said Ann, who asked that her last name not be used. “They’ve been without hope for so long that their standards have been lowered to the point where they just don’t understand that it’s possible to be treated with respect and dignity, or to have a reason to get up in the morning.

“For Jennielynn, she always lets them know that this is merely a stepping stone to something bigger and better for you. She has intense belief that everybody can do it, and people hate to let her down.”

Holmes said she’s learned that providing food, shelter and security are critical to creating the opportunity for people to change their lives. What’s needed most, though, is the individual’s personal belief that they are capable of such transformations.

That was the light that returned to Hannah — dimmed after her mother left her and her siblings at the grocery store that day years ago— when she realized she could overcome her circumstances.

“This is how we’re going to end homelessness,” Holmes said. ‘It’s about re-instilling hope in people who feel they’ve lost everything.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Editors note: This story has been updated to reflect that Holmes and her husband began dating after high school.

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