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MBEP NEW MEMBER SPOTLIGHT:

Gathering for Women: Essential Connections

For some women, Gathering for Women provides a safe place to shower or get a meal while they experience homeless, to receive a soft pillow to make sleeping in a car a bit more comfortable, and to get connections to community resources that can help them move forward or improve their situations. The Monterey nonprofit is also a place where women can find some dignity at a moment in their lives where that can be hard to find.

That’s because the staff and volunteers at Gathering for Women recognize that every homeless woman has her own unique story, says Gathering for Women Executive Director Staci Alziebler-Perkins, and breaking through the stereotypes and assumptions surrounding homelessness is an important part of addressing the complexity of issues that contribute to it.

Homelessness can be the result of a broad spectrum of factors: Substance abuse and mental health issues, or external factors such as job losses and medical emergencies, like the substitute whose work hours vanished as a result of the pandemic, says Alziebler-Perkins, or the bank employee whose pay raise pushed her out of the eligibility threshold for affordable childcare. Some homeless women sleep in vehicles, tents, or parks, while others seek temporary shelter in relatives’ homes or garages.

“Every person has a different story,” said Alziebler-Perkins. “There are a lot of negative perceptions, but the reality is that it could happen to anyone.”

Housing cost burdens in areas such as Monterey County leave little margin for households to handle such crises as unexpected illnesses, unemployment or even an unbudgeted emergency car repair. And when the state’s eviction moratorium is lifted this June, she worries that the true impact of the pandemic on housing could become vividly clear.  “We’re waiting to see what happens,” said Alziebler-Perkins, “but we know many people are choosing to eat or pay rent. Back in 2019, the average American was something like $400 away from a crisis….that’s the cost of a tire. With the current economic crisis, imagine them now.”

Gathering for Women, founded in 2014, is run by a staff of 10 and a team of volunteers who operate a Day Center that meets the immediate needs of homeless women — food, clothing and shelter referrals — while partnering with other providers to address issues such as employment, mental health or addiction issues and to connect them with the resources they need. 

So much of what Gathering for Women does is about making connections, says Alziebler-Perkins, and as a volunteer-driven organization, that includes building community connections to help run its programs and provide services.

Last spring, when grocery shelves were temporarily emptied and demand on local food banks soared, the nonprofit reached out to local restaurants and the Del Monte Farmer’s Market for support. The help of those local businesses was vitally important at a critical moment and established ongoing partnerships to support Gathering for Women in the future.

In 2020, more than 400 individual women received services through Gathering for Women, with 1,328 case management visits, 16,007 take-away meals, 1,855 clothes closet visits and 2,284 showers. In partnership with other homeless service providers, 40 guests were housed in temporary shelters and 13 found permanent housing. A dozen guests found new employment opportunities.

And on March 21, Gathering for Women will host a virtual grand opening for Casa de Noche Buena, a newly opened shelter for homeless women and families. The result of a partnership between Gathering for Women and Community Human Services, the Seaside facility provides safe temporary housing for single women and families with children for up to 90 days, along with access to health, mental health and substance abuse services and linkages to income, employment, education and housing, with the goal of helping guests obtain permanent housing.

While COVID-19 has altered some ways in which Gathering for Women serves the community, the Day Center traditionally offers a wide range of enrichment opportunities for its guests to build wellness and self-esteem, from interviewing and resume building workshops to chair yoga, Zumba, mindfulness, and art. Even in the pandemic, Gathering for Women continues to find new ways to build women up: Last fall, paintings created during a bi-weekly art workshop for Gathering for Women guests were showcased in an art fair alongside works donated by professional artists. One participant raised enough money from her art sales to pay for a costly truck repair. And above all, the art show helped participants reclaim a sense of identity as artists, creators and women with unique voices, histories and hopes.

That’s central to the organization’s mission: “We want to make sure that they know that they are women first,” said Alziebler-Perkins. “We show it in everything we do — we treat them with the dignity they deserve.”

By also featuring the first-person stories, self-portraits and recordings of its guests on its website, Gathering for Women gives a voice to women who are all too often dismissed or invisible to society. For its work, Gathering for Woman was recognized by Sen. Bill Monning as his 2020 Nonprofit of the Year.

No one knows exactly how many women are currently unsheltered in Monterey County, and due to the pandemic, the Coalition of Homeless Service Providers canceled the 2021 Homeless Point-in-Time Count, which helps to measure the prevalence of homelessness in the region and collect information on the needs of individuals and families.

Moving forward, Gathering for Women looks to give even greater voice to those overlooked women as it joins MBEP’s membership and becomes more involved in the advocacy and policy work surrounding housing and homelessness. An ad hoc advocacy committee has been created to guide the nonprofit’s work to affect change on a systemic level, Alziebler-Perkins said.

And Gathering for Women will continue to build relationships with the women it serves, work for change and celebrate successes. Those are challenging tasks, but there are plenty of success stories, like the chronically homeless woman who was one of Gathering for Women’s first clients and now, at age 74, has recently moved into permanent housing.

“I know that there’s a growing need for what we’re doing and that there’s a need for more ‘housing-first’ solutions like we’re doing in Seaside,” said Alziebler-Perkins.” I think the biggest thing to know is that it could happen to anyone. We need to find a way to fix this crisis before it gets worse, because once you’re chronically homeless, it’s particularly hard to get out of homelessness when a  studio apartment is $1,500.