By Jill Allen
While much of our attention is rightly focused on the Covid-19 pandemic, I think it’s important to keep in mind that our continuing goal here at Dorothy’s Place is to get our homeless population off the streets permanently.
As I’ve communicated before, permanent affordable housing of the homeless is something that everybody agrees with and supports. But actually getting it funded and getting folks off the street is another matter. It’s often a colossal struggle for a variety of reasons.
The good news is that we’re slowly but surely making progress on this front through our House of Peace Transitional Living Program. We assisted three transitional housing residents who moved into permanent housing in March and April.
Our Roman Perez, who is the head of both the program’s Soledad and Jefferson street locations, recently visited Maria Concepcion Mendez, a program graduate. Perez met her at her new studio apartment to check in on how she is doing off the streets and in a secure home.
Here’s is Roman’s report:
As I knock on the door of Maria’s third-floor studio apartment and wait for her to answer, I turn to my right and admire the contrasting view of Chinatown. I can actually see Dorothy’s Kitchen and House of Peace’s Soledad Street site from where I stand.
I knock once more and as the door slowly opens Maria appears. With her black and white polka dot bandana, she smiles and welcomes me into her apartment. As I enter her spotless apartment, the smell of fresh tortillas, eggs and ham perfumes the room. Maria offers me a taco which I gladly accept.
I’ve explained to Maria that the reason I wanted to speak with her because as a 94-year-old Latina who is just now is getting housed, she represents a victory for the program that others need to hear about.
Maria Mendez was born in Tampico in the state of Tamaulipas Mexico.
On paper, Maria is deemed “Chronically Homeless” under the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines as she has been on the street for more than 20 years.
As a child, Maria was raised in a blue-collar family, with three sisters and two brothers. She was the second of all her siblings. Presently, Maria says she is the only female left alive in her family but may still have a brother living in Mexico.
She wanted to travel. I asked Maria about school, due to her Spanish being so refined and articulate. Maria said that she graduated from “La Preparatoria” (High School) and after, she really wanted to be a nun, constantly participating in her church’s choir. Yet, it cost money and her parents were not willing to invest in it. Still, Maria aspired to do more than what she was allowed.
When Maria was 20, her mother passed away and her father immediately found a new partner. Maria then moved to the State of “El Distrito Federal”, where she worked as a maid.
Her life followed a circuitous path after that, including her making stops in Nuevo Laredo Tamaulipas, where she had no money, no family, and no resources and experienced homelessness for the first time.
She then found work for a staffing agency in Laredo, Texas but was placed under the constant strain of crossing the border daily to get to her job. Maria’s luck changed when she won a Green Card (Permanent Resident Card) through a lottery. She then sought greener pastures in the urban world of Chicago where she found employment at a dress and bow factory.
Maria struggled with factory life and soon was homeless again. Maria mentioned that she sought out help from her church. There, a priest provided shelter for her and also got her employment being a maid for a newly married couple.
Unsettled, Maria opted to move back to Texas where she trained to be a commercial cook, preparing both Mexican and Italian cuisine.
Still, Maria says, she wanted more from her life.
She opted to travel to California with a family who was moving to Long Beach. But once they arrived in Long Beach, there was a just single room waiting for the couple, the mother, and Maria. As a result, Maria ended up sleeping in a car for many months. With no employment, no money, no housing, once again, she was confronted again with homelessness.
Maria, however, never gave up.
Constantly finding new ways to reinvent herself, she made brief stops in Oxnard and, ultimately, San Francisco where she became the head of a hospital’s laundry services department — a job she says she cherished for nearly two decades until the staggering costs of living in San Francisco forced a move to nearby (and slightly cheaper) San Jose.
After her requests for housing and other assistance fell through, commuting issues and other difficulties ultimately led Maria to being let go at the hospital — plunging her back into homelessness.
So, in 2013, at the age of 87, she gathered her things, got on a Greyhound bus, and came to Salinas.
Maria recalls that her first couple weeks in Salinas were rough. She slept on the pavement. One day, however, she was approached by a Mexican couple, who informed her she should go to “Dorotea’s” at Chinatown and there, they told her she would be able to bathe and eat.
Maria then walked to Chinatown and she described her first time there as horrifying. The tents, the smells, the screams. She described her first night on Soledad Street as a nightmare where she couldn’t sleep and was constantly afraid of someone attacking her.
She also recalls the many kind women in Chinatown who went out of their way to protect her. One of the services Maria became connected to while in Chinatown was the Women Alive Emergency Shelter.
But when that emergency shelter closed in January 2019 due to a lack of funding, the House of Peace Transitional Living Residence (upstairs at Dorothy’s Place) immediately became her home, mostly due to her advanced age and by other women in Chinatown advocating for her.
While Maria says her transition from Dorothy’s to her new place at Moon Gate Plaza wasn’t easy, she says she is grateful for all the help she received to increase the quality of life she now enjoys.
As I prepare to leave, I ask Maria this final question, “Esta contenta” (are you happy)? Maria’s eyes look down at Chinatown and points at where she used to sleep and looks at where she is now. “Si lo estoy. Gracias a Dios, si lo estoy.” (Yes I am. Thanks to God, I am.)
I want to thank Roman Perez for all his dedicated work and for sharing Maria’s brave story. Her journey in life reflects, once again, that life can be rich and fulfilling and it can be capricious and downright mean sometimes.
While Maria says she is now home and secure and is not looking back, neither are we.
The thing about this that you need to know is that, sadly, there are thousands of Marias out there and they all need housing and help.
For this reason, I am asking you to reach down deep and consider making a donation to Dorothy’s Place and to our House of Peace Transitional Living program.
After all, the next person that we can lift off the street could be a family member, loved one or, God forbid, perhaps even you.
With much love and gratitude,
Jill Allen is the executive director at Dorothy’s Place. She stands for grace, acceptance, and respect.
With love, respect and compassion, Dorothy’s Place provides essential services, transitional support and housing assistance to people experiencing the injustice of homelessness and extreme poverty.
Without your financial support, our work doesn’t happen. Join us! Stand with us as we assist people from street life to home life. Your solidarity is humbly and gratefully received.