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November 30, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, November 30, 2005

HOLIDAY FUND: Shelter Network helps homeless get back on their feet HOLIDAY FUND: Shelter Network helps homeless get back on their feet (November 30, 2005)

A mother at Menlo Park's Haven House shares her story.

By Marjorie Mader

Almanac Staff Writer

"Shelter Network changes lives," says Melva Johnson, who never thought she would be homeless.

"Being involved with Shelter Network is changing my life and the lives of my daughters, right now," Ms. Johnson says.

She told her story during an interview last week at Haven Family House in Menlo Park, where she and her daughters have found a safe haven, help, and a start to a brighter future.

"I was one of those members of society who was married, had three daughters, lived in a comfortable home in East Palo Alto, and held a full-time job for 18 years as an assembler/test technician with a manufacturing company."

In the economic downturn, "I was downsized." Her job was eliminated.

Within six months after Ms. Johnson lost her job, her marriage ended. She and her daughters moved from their home to an apartment in Hayward, where rent was more affordable. She worked at a series of temporary jobs, but none paid nearly as well as her old job.

"After a while it became clear that I would not be able to keep patching the finances together, based on what I made temping," she says.

When rent increases made her apartment out of reach, Ms. Johnson and her daughters moved back to East Palo Alto to live with a family member. Eighteen months later, that living situation abruptly came to an end. "We had nowhere to go."

After asking around and searching for help, Ms. Johnson was referred to Shelter Network's First Step for Families, which provides short-term housing in San Mateo.

"I was depressed and scared. The idea of a shelter was frightening for me, and I was nervous for my girls. I wondered, what kind of an environment are we getting into now?" she recalls.

Ms. Johnson found her courage and walked into Shelter Network in San Mateo. She and her daughters stayed in a bright, clean, comfortable and safe studio for six weeks.

Last August, they moved into transitional housing at the network's Haven Family House, a recently built apartment complex with community rooms, laundry, a child care facility, outdoor play areas and a garden.

"Shelter Network has been a godsend for me and my daughters," Ms. Johnson says. Besides having a comfortable, safe place to live without paying rent, she is able to save 50 percent of her income for a future deposit on an affordable apartment.

Ms. Johnson works evenings and weekends in the health care field with elderly patients. She also is a full-time student at Canada College, where she's working to become a registered nurse.

Her daughters are doing well, too, she says. Her 12-year-old daughter, Stephanie, received a scholarship to The Girls' Middle School in Mountain View. Her 20-year-old daughter, Candice, works at Kaiser in San Jose and also saves 50 percent of her salary. The third daughter, now 22, is on her own.

"Most people who come to Shelter Network are employed or become employed after they get here," says Brian Greenberg, Shelter Network's director of programs and services. Often it's an illness, medical emergency, a loss of a job, or family and financial issues that catapult a family into homelessness.

Mr. Greenberg cites the skyrocketing cost of living and lack of affordable housing on the Peninsula as key factors making it difficult for low-income families to survive. More and more working families and single adults are living paycheck to paycheck, he said.

A major problem, Mr. Greenberg says, is that most of the jobs that are easy to get are in the service industry -- food service and hotels -- and they don't pay enough to provide a cushion for emergencies.

During the year, Shelter Network serves 3,000 people and provides 100,000 nights of shelter in its short-term, mid-term and longer-term programs. More than 80 percent of the families and single adults break the cycle of homelessness and return to permanent housing after completing the network's programs, according to Shelter Network.

"It's a struggle to keep Shelter Network's programs going, and we need to bring in over $500,000 just to provide the bare minimum to keep our heads above water," he said.

Fortunately, he says, there are people in the 20 cities and towns in the county who believe Shelter Network is critical to stopping the cycle of homelessness, and they support the agency.

Shelter Network operates six programs throughout San Mateo County to help homeless families and individuals get back on their feet by providing housing and support services. For information, log on to or call the office at 685-5880.

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