When I ask Monique about the positive changes she’s made in her life, she pauses, then weeps softly into the phone.
“I saw my dad abuse my mom, I saw drugs, my brothers were in gangs,” she says through her sobs. “I didn’t want my daughter to think that my upbringing was normal. She should never have to see me with black eyes again. I saw this tiny girl. She depends on me. And her dad probably would have killed me if I had stayed. What’s kept me going is giving [my daughter] a better life. She deserves happiness.”
The Watsonville native was a school bus driver in Vallejo, where she met her daughter’s father—we’ll call him Bill—a “parolee who drank a lot.” When he got off parole, he moved to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a blue-collar suburb outside of Pittsburgh. Monique and their daughter, who was about two at the time, left California for the east coast once Bill had a place big enough for all of them to live.
“He would tell me that I could work and go to school, and the second I got there, he told me, ‘Sit your ass down; you’re not going nowhere,’” Monique says. “That’s when it all started. We were abusive and toxic; a lot of alcohol involved.”
Bill would be gone for weeks at a time, and when he’d return, he would be even more abusive. One day, Bill saw Monique chatting with one of the dads while she was waiting at the school bus stop.
“When I got home, [Bill] broke the door down and beat the crap out of me,” Monique recalls. “I ended up calling the cops.”
She noticed the fear in her daughter’s eyes; it was unbearable.
“I didn’t want [my daughter] to think this was normal behavior,” Monique says.
Bill was hauled off to jail, allowing Monique and her daughter to escape the abuse. But Monique couldn’t escape the depression and alcoholism that already had a tight grip on her. She says she felt hopeless and even suicidal. That’s when she checked herself into a Watsonville program, Teen Challenge, for 18 months.
“I needed to learn how to be a mother,” Monique says. “I came from a very toxic family and was always around alcohol, drugs, abuse, violence, gangs. I didn’t know how to be a parent, so I needed to learn how to be a sober mom and how to do it single.”
Monique picked up a few life skills, found some stability and got sober—she even scored a full-time job with the ministry, where she was employed for over five years. But the pay wasn’t nearly enough to sustain her and her daughter, so she left the program in February 2021. She didn’t know how to proceed and felt herself flailing—on the cusp of falling back into her old way of life—until she found Pajaro Valley Shelter Services in December 2021, leading to a game-changing epiphany.
“I learned in these classes that all the abuse and neglect that I had gone through as a child resulted in me not having coping mechanisms,” Monique explains. “I had no clue how to be a mom—I’m still learning.”
PVSS provided Monique and her daughter with a safe place in a beautiful Victorian home surrounded by understanding people.
“[PVSS] motivates you to get better work; they motivate you to go to school,” Monique says. “There’s high accountability, good counseling and good support. It was a launchpad for me.”
In addition to fighting for her life, Monique has fought for her daughter’s safety, ensuring she’d never have to face the wrath of her abusive father again. Since finding PVSS, Monique has doubled her salary. Just a year ago, she had no hope and nowhere to turn; a day earlier, she signed a lease for her own two-bedroom place.
“[Monique] is the model participant,” PVSS Executive Director Mike Johnson says. “She dove into everything that we have to offer. We hold out the tools and open the door. It was her motivation, her will and desire to have a better life for her and her daughter that made the difference.”
PVSS is one of many Santa Cruz Gives nonprofits that don’t receive any government funding.
“We are almost exclusively reliant on private funding from individuals, donor-advised funds, private grants, businesses and institutions like churches,” Johnson says. “Our ability to grow and sustain our programs depends on community members. We have to be constantly appealing to our community for support.”
That support funds services exclusively available to the homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness. Potential clients must also be willing to commit to working in a structured program, attend case management meetings, various workshops and classes and save as much money as possible.
“Those requirements are meant to ensure that people are ready to move out within a timeframe that fits their length of stay,” Johnson explains. “This program will take you from crisis to stability and housing within six months to two years. And if you’re willing to work with us, we will work with you.”
There’s an emergency shelter set up like a dormitory with 30 beds for female heads of households only (with or without children). A one-year transitional program can also serve families with a male head of household.
“Fortunately, the community is very generous and supports us,” Johnson says. “The greatest needs we have going forward are funding programs that we’ve started in the last couple of years.”
The Coordinated Economic Development Program kicked off during the pandemic to help people access training and education that would lead to better jobs and upward mobility. Monique used the program to learn QuickBooks, which will enable her to get a higher-paying job in the coming year. More recently, she went through the Emotional Stability Program, which is the focus of PVSS’s Gives campaign, and seeks to ensure families have the resilience they need to overcome adversity that might otherwise derail their progress. Both programs are part of the organization’s “three pillars of self-sufficiency”: emotional, financial and housing stability.
A grant from the 1440 Foundation has aided more one-on-one counseling, support and wellness groups and family strengthening and ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) classes. Through ACE, Monique discovered the most valuable piece of her personal growth puzzle: the trauma she endured during her childhood affected her entire life and stunted her growth.
“Most families, or parents we serve, have histories that include childhood trauma,” Johnson explains. “Childhood trauma has a big impact on you as an adult. It leads to triggering events that can make your life dysfunctional. It also leads to health risk behaviors, like drug use, job problems and so forth. Most people with those sorts of histories don’t make that connection between their problems as adults and their childhood trauma. So, this class makes that connection for them and gives them tools to build resilience and coping strategies to overcome adversity.”
Monique is packing up the small apartment in the Victorian home where she and her daughter live. They look forward to moving into their own home, a small casita with two bedrooms and a yard. She tears up again when she mentions the family strengthening classes and the newfound reliance and coping strategies she now uses daily.
“This is the first time my daughter will have her own room since we left Pennsylvania seven years ago,” Monique says. “We’re in the middle of Watsonville, not far from my daughter’s school. I cried like a baby yesterday when I signed the lease. I’ve worked hard to do the right thing; the motive of the heart is really important.”
Here are the other groups in this year’s Santa Cruz Gives that are focused on housing issues:
For over 25 years, Families in Transition has provided temporary rental assistance to unstably housed families at risk of homelessness. It’s a team effort propelled by several local affiliates, including the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, the Santa Cruz County Planning Department, the David & Lucile Packard Foundation and others. It begins with FIT case managers who develop individualized housing stability plans.
But it all comes down to the property owners willing to rent to the families participating in the program. FIT’s open letter to landlords says it all: “By giving the families a chance to succeed, you are opening a door for them that can lead to strong property owner/tenant relationships, increased financial independence and children who are able to not only survive but thrive in a stable living environment.”
Habitat for Humanity’s ambitious “Big Idea 2023” is Rodeo Creek Court, an 11-home project at the organization’s heart: single-family homes for first-time homebuyers. Two houses will be ADA-compliant for families with someone who’s disabled. The goal is to construct homes with 70% volunteer labor. The soon-to-be homeowners will be involved in building their homes and receive an in-depth homeowner education to improve and maintain all aspects of their lives. An affordable mortgage will allow families to build strength, stability and self-reliance. All homes will have rooftop solar panels, a washer and dryer and a storage room.
“We believe in building a sense of community and will add a play area and an organic community garden for all residents to share.”
HGP’s core mission is designed for people experiencing homelessness to work while receiving job training and social support in a yearlong program at their organic farm and value-added retail, social enterprise. More than 90% of graduates obtain stable jobs and housing within three months of completing the program. Everyone is paid wages for their work.
“HGP helps people find a path forward out of the darkness of the streets, a path towards self-reliance, housing and gives people who were once forgotten by society the skills needed to get a decent job. Hopefully, they will like going to, moving forward in life and so much more,” a graduate says.
Housing Matters’ “Big Idea 2023” is big: permanently house 190 households currently experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz County in 2023. It’s possible, though. Last year, the nonprofit connected 328 adults and kids experiencing homelessness with stable, permanent housing.
Moving from emergency housing in a motel room to a home can be the difference between a life dominated by the threats they fled and the beginning of a new hope-filled life.
All donations go to families—many are refugees and asylum seekers from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Central America—who have persevered through unimaginable experiences just to get to the U.S. The three-year-old Welcoming Network forms teams to work alongside each family, helping them find housing, jobs, schools for their children and an advocate for their immigration case.
The Warming Center’s “Big Idea 2023” seems so simple: “No one freezes this winter.” But it’s not. In its ninth year, this fantastic Santa Cruz County operation will continue to literally save lives by purchasing 2,000 blankets for distribution plus 500 for the pop-up shelter (two per person) and providing laundry after each shelter use. Additionally, the center will distribute 5,000 hand warmers; 1,500 knit gloves and beanie combos; and as many as 200 rain tarps and 500 rain ponchos, depending on rainfall.
Housing is much more than a roof over your head. Wings provide those services we often don’t think about: delivery of move-in kits; transportation to appointments; help to move; and assistance in obtaining vital documents necessary to get housing and employment.
Without building expenses, Wings dispatches its 50 volunteers to deliver beds, bedding and baskets of household and hygiene supplies to people moving into permanent housing. Wings serves families, veterans, seniors and victims of domestic violence—helping each household stabilize and heal as they begin a new chapter of their lives.
Visit santacruzgives.org to make donations through Saturday, Dec. 31. Follow on social media at @santacruzgives.