One of my earliest memories as a case manager was meeting a young woman who just experienced her first night of homelessness. Over the years that have passed, I no longer remember her face, the color of her hair, her frame, or even her age.
But I remember her shoes. They were threadbare, the soles detaching from the toes, and wet from the prior night’s rain. I remember her startled expression and her quivering voice, surprising even herself to admit she had no place to go the previous night. Throughout the night, she had been terrified, refusing to stop even for a moment out of fear for her safety. After walking through the darkness for hours, she was exhausted, hoping to find refuge at our drop-in center.
According to 2020 data, 223,578 women are experiencing homelessness in the United States. Women face unique challenges and vulnerabilities that can exacerbate risks of homelessness, including intimate partner violence, health care issues, familial needs, and beyond.
Transgender women are more likely to face ongoing discrimination at every phase in their home-searching process. While homeless, women have specialized health care and hygienic needs that, when untreated, can pose significant fiscal and health complications. It goes without saying that women are likely to experience violence during this fragile time.
Yet women overcome these obstacles and are often leading the charge to improve their communities. During this year’s Women’s History Month, PATH honored the variety of ways that women “provide healing and promote hope.” By elevating the voices of PATH participants, staff and partners, we celebrate their diverse contributions in our shared mission to end homelessness.
I had the pleasure to chat with two such women warriors—Terrel J. and Ericka M.—two residents at a PATH permanent supportive housing community. These generous women sat down with me this month to share their thoughts on the importance of friendship, female leadership and the power they have within and collectively.
Ericka flashes a wide, contagious smile to Terrel as they recall their first weekend after moving to Villas on the Park. During the early days when only the first few residents had moved in, they ventured to the roof where they met. They grew close over time—attending onsite workshops and groups and seeing each other around the building. To see them now, they have the unmistakable chemistry of something closer than friendship—they are family.
They know each other’s rhythms; they check in on each other every morning, midday and before bed. Ericka is a proud aunt to Terrel’s puppy: a toy poodle/chihuahua mix. During their free time, they grab meals together at their favorite neighborhood spots; when I ask for their favorite, they can’t land on a single spot—they rattle off the names of a variety of local cafes, buffets and Chinese food establishments.
“If I don’t hear something (from her), something is wrong,” they both agree.
“She calms me down,” Ericka says of Terrel. I witness this myself during our conversation: while Ericka reflects on a particularly difficult medical experience, Terrel anticipates Ericka’s needs and hands her a tissue at exactly the right moment.
A new medical diagnosis can be traumatic for anyone to deal with, but for Ericka, it has given her a sense of power. While homeless, she had been denied specialist referrals—ironic, given that her health complications were one of the contributing factors leading to her homelessness. Earlier in the week, both women had spoken as advocates with a local health care provider where they shed light on the barriers to medical care while homeless—and posed recommendations on how to improve care.
Both women spend a considerable amount of their spare time in various advisory groups, giving feedback to providers and local officials about their experiences and how to improve the care of people who are unhoused. Ericka also serves as a commissioner for the Santa Clara County Housing Authority. Now, she advises developers to implement ADA-accessible policies to ensure those with disabling conditions are safely sheltered in their new homes. Her commitment to the cause shows up in our own conversation, where she made a recommendation for our own onsite emergency protocols.
“You don’t always feel like showing up, but you do it,” Ericka admits. Her medical needs—particularly around her newest diagnosis—can get her down. “I do it because I’ve made an obligation to my community to show up.”
Terrel has also made a commitment to her neighbors at Villas on the Park. She attends many of the onsite groups, serving as a volunteer for holidays and special events. “Every day, I see people who need help. I do what I can to help somebody.”
“I never thought I would have experienced this, never in a million years” Ericka reflects, echoing the sentiments of the woman I met many years prior. She takes pride in her work as a local leader and advocate. “I don’t want others to go through everything I did.”
When asked what messages they have for women emerging from homelessness, Terrel applauds their courage and perseverance, paying particular attention to their safety, hygiene and mental health needs. These women serve as a beacon, beckoning strength to those going through a tough situation.
“Don’t give up” Terrel urges. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
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]