It started with the kind of conversation many parents would simply dismiss as curiosity. Tia Sukin and her husband, Michael Fechter, had recently moved to Monterey in 2011, and their son, then 17, started asking what it would be like to be homeless. He asked them about the price of a can of beans, a can opener, a spoon.
Instead of passing over his questions as mere curiosity, Sukin and Fechter decided to get an insider perspective. “We thought, let’s go start talking to some homeless people, get the viewpoint of what it’s like to be homeless from someone who is homeless,” Sukin recalls.
They took their son to El Estero Park on a Saturday morning, when homeless people regularly gather for breakfast from Pass the Word Ministry, a nonprofit that hosts weekly meals, repairs bikes and hands out provisions. (Pass the Word also does the same Sundays at Window on the Bay, known as the Beach Church.)
Their son wasn’t much interested in engaging, but Sukin and Fechter saw a community to join. They were looking for a church in their new home, and started attending the Beach Church regularly, serving weekly meals there as well.
And for the first time in her life, Sukin, 32, took up as a leader of a cause. She got to know homeless people, heard their stories, and occasionally let people sleep in her home or use her shower.
Sukin and Fechter got a reputation for being people who cared. One day, Monterey Police Chief Phil Penko called Sukin on her cell; Frank Maiorana, an unwell, 75-year-old man had been cited for illegally parking and sleeping in his RV many times over 20 years, and the city was preparing to tow his home.
It was the type of scenario Sukin had been hearing about again and again: people living in their cars, parking illegally and sometimes unsafely, getting citations they couldn’t afford and, eventually, impound fees they couldn’t pay. (Sukin and Fechter found a nursing home in Gilroy that could house Maiorana, but he refused help. His RV was eventually impounded, and he died last month at 76.)
Sukin’s interest in homelessness coincided with fever-pitch attention from City Council and local activists, including Timothy Barrett, who was planning a symposium on homelessness for mid-2013. (Barrett was elected to Monterey City Council Nov. 4.)
Homelessness on the Monterey Peninsula is at an all-time high. “It seems like you would have to just hit up against a lot of challenges before you became homeless in a place that was reasonably priced,” Sukin says. “Here, it’s just one thing: You get divorced, lose your job, go into foreclosure.”
She found herself sitting through City Council meetings for the first time in her life, patiently waiting through tedious discussions on storm drains and remodeling the conference center. Then City Council set aside $40,000 for social programs to help the homeless, and Sukin saw an in.
“I said, ‘I think we need to do something. We need to put forward a proposal so there’s something there, before City Council.’” Her proposal was the blueprint of One Starfish, an overnight parking program for people living in their vehicles.
“To me, it really felt like a calling from God,” Sukin says.
She went to the podium and spoke before Monterey City Hall on Aug. 27, 2013, and handed City Council a 14-page plan for One Starfish.
“Those who are forced to sleep in vehicles are attempting to hide out-of-sight,” the proposal stated, “and those who are discovered are harassed from place to place either by police or other community members.”
Sukin expected a warm acceptance, but instead got mostly negative comments and letters, to the effect of “not in my backyard,” or concern that the program would normalize living in cars and discourage participants from seeking permanent housing.
“We’re helping [people] lift themselves out of homelessness, as opposed to sinking deeper in,” Sukin says, “to keep a level footing where they’re not just slipping, slipping, slipping.”
After getting City Council buy-in and a $6,000 grant from a fund started by local priest Michael Reid, One Starfish launched in September with a five-car program at a church in Carmel Valley. Another two-car lot is expected to open at a synagogue any day.
For now, the program is limited to the unincorporated county. But Sukin is working with city officials in Monterey and Pacific Grove on revising city laws to allow One Starfish within city limits. Sand City and Carmel are also planning to host sites. Together, the four cities pledged $15,000 to the program.
So far, One Starfish has raised about $80,000, enough to station portable toilets in the parking lots, cover insurance and pay a part-time social worker who conducts intake interviews and works with each guest to identify available resources, including counseling, whenever possible.
Every night, five women can park from 7pm to 7am in the Carmel Valley lot. On a damp December evening, three sedans are quietly parked. One 54-year-old woman – we’ll call her Juanita, at her request, since most of her friends don’t know she’s homeless – moved into her Volkswagen Passat in early September, just before One Starfish launched. A friend helped her remove the passenger seat, and she sleeps on layers of memory foam, in a sleeping bag.
She’d been laid off from a good job in 2008, just as the economy crashed. Her severance pay ran out, and then she burned through her retirement, but still didn’t have a job. The bank foreclosed on her Prunedale home, and she couch surfed and house-sat for friends until the reliable arrangements ended.
“I was so desperate,” Juanita says. “I don’t want to leech off of my friends. If you knew you were going to stay on your friend’s couch for a month, that would be one thing. But I don’t see the end of this.”
It was early September, and she spent four days living in her car. At first, she tried to reverse day and night; she’d nap in her car along the beach during the day, and drive around all night. “I was afraid of what else was out there,” she says.
Then One Starfish opened up, just in time.
“Tia’s focus is on human dignity,” she says. “Tia is our hero.”
Sukin is executive director, volunteering about 15 hours a week. She works a demanding full-time job as a psychometrician at Pacific Metrics, where she uses statistics to evaluate the validity of standardized tests.
Rosemarie Axton, One Starfish’s associate director, volunteers about 10 hours a week. She is retired from 20 years as a psychotherapist with Monterey County Behavioral Health and a stint as executive director of the organization that became Shelter Outreach Plus, serving the homeless.
“I didn’t expect to work with homeless people again, but it’s quite compelling,” Axton says. “I’m 71, and to see women my own age out on the street, the social justice issues are really in your face.”
She met Sukin through church volunteer groups and a fundraiser for the Fund for Homeless Women, started by the Community Foundation for Monterey County in 2012. That fund, initiated at the request of priest Michael Reid, has since raised $250,000 and has given $21,500 to One Starfish, the seed money that kickstarted the parking program.
Reid first learned about the growing number of homeless women two years ago, when he got a letter from a woman named Joyce. “She was shocked to find many women in that same situation,” Reid recalls. “They were afraid, vulnerable and scared. I was shocked myself.”
The fund Reid launched approved a $144,000 grant Dec. 18 to another upstart nonprofit, Outreach Unlimited, which will provide overnight housing to women, similar to Shelter Outreach Plus iHELP program for men, on opposite nights in many of the same churches. Now, Reid’s on to looking for a place to start a warming shelter on the Peninsula. “This is really an important story of how a community rallies together,” he says.
Axton had grown tired of direct service work through her church – handing out sweaters or sandwiches to only one person at a time.
“God sent me to Tia,” she says. “She’s brilliant. And she always felt that somehow God would provide what was needed.
“She recognizes that change doesn’t just happen on a one-to-one basis, but politically and systemically.”