Sandoval: Creating communities at home
PATH staff join Villas at the Park residents for a community event on the building’s rooftop garden. Photo courtesy of PATH.

When a resident moves into a PATH apartment building, they are connected to more than a rental unit—they are joining a community.

“Community” is one of those nebulous concepts that looks different for everyone. For some, community means enjoying the company of others with common interests—joining a faith-based fellowship, special interest club, a neighborhood association. For others, it means having a friend who doesn’t mind grabbing canned soup and ibuprofen from the store when feeling unwell. Still others hope for the smile of a friendly neighbor who greets them by name in the elevator.

Many of our residents have experienced ruptures in their communities prior to moving in. Separations from parents, children and other friendships can cause or contributed to homelessness—the outcome when all support systems dried up. According to the 2019 Point in Time Count, 16% of individuals reported divorce, separation or break ups as the primary factor that resulted in homelessness. An alarming amount of our residents struggle to identify even a single in-case-of-emergency contact to list on their rental applications.

Our service teams make it our business to build community when residents move in. It starts with us—being proactive in introducing ourselves to residents, celebrating move-in days, bringing house-warming gifts that turn an apartment into a home. Central to our mission and values is nurturing these supportive relationships from the day a resident expresses interest in moving into a PATH site.

PATH hires activity coordinators whose primary purpose is to regularly elicit feedback from our residents about what would build that sense of community onsite. Based on resident input, we work together to design cooking classes, yoga sessions, basketball competitions and movie nights. These activities are an opportunity for our residents to learn a new skill or practice a healthy habit in a fun way, but they are also opportunities for our residents to build relationships with their neighbors.

Activities don’t just occur onsite. Our residents live in a building that’s a part of a larger neighborhood, city and state. Accordingly, activities and events often occur in the community at large. Residents may walk to the local farmers market together. They may go on a group bike ride to a local museum. At Villas on the Park, we regularly invite our neighbors to join us in a community clean-up day that ends with a socially distanced pizza party.

In other PATH communities across the state, some residents have sought ways to invite the community into their own homes. One PATH site in North Hollywood hosts community-wide art walks, where residents display and sell their artwork in their own social ventures. At another Los Angeles site that serves primarily older adults with medical vulnerabilities, residents sought ways to remove barriers for those with mobility limitations to practice their civic duty and became the designated neighborhood polling site.

We know that this intentional effort to craft community works. We see it when we grab lunch at San Pedro Square and find two residents enjoying a meal with each other. We overhear it in the conversations between neighbors sharing tips on trusted places to take their cars for service. We smell it in the scent of fresh-baked goods, wafting from kitchen windows where residents share recipes and kitchen goods. When a resident passed away from a chronic illness this year, we felt it when we facilitated a celebration of her life, as residents honored her memory through sharing their own fond experiences and intimate connections.

We see it in the way residents have used the safe space at Villas to host friends and loved ones. One resident shared, “It’s so nice to ask my friend to come by and have a random movie night. Sometimes, she’ll just come by and listen to music as I clean the house. When the house is clean, I invite more friends to have a game night.”

As we prepare for the year’s end, our service teams know this season can be a critical moment for our residential communities. The holidays, which often spark joy, might also be tinged with painful memories of years past and connections lost. Our teams strive to cultivate parties and events where our residents can create new, joyful memories with people who care for them and about them. This week at Villas on the Park, we were delighted to welcome groups of volunteers who hosted community-building activities that range from décor workshops to meal celebrations.

Other residents are looking forward to their own celebrations. One resident shared how “the holidays mean more having a home. I can make Thanksgiving dinner and this year I will buy a mini tree for Christmas.” Another resident shared her plans to invite friends over for to “spend a day preparing and making tamales so we can give them out to our neighbors.”

We know these moments are pivotal in creating new memories onsite with our residents—ones that we know can lead to powerful, lifelong connections. We honor the strength in our residents who have persevered through traumas of homelessness and come out the other side. We celebrate with them their newfound relationships in which they are welcomed, valued, and define their own new roles in the community—as a citizen, as a neighbor, and as a friend.

San José Spotlight columnist Laura Sandoval is a regional director at PATH San Jose, a homeless services and housing development agency. She is also a licensed clinical social worker with over a decade of experience. Her columns appear every fourth Monday of the month. Contact Laura at [email protected]

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