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Sonoma County Gazette

Catholic Charities’ Housing Director Discusses Motivation for Social Workers

Feb 24, 2019
by Will Carruthers


The rainy season always hits hard at Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa. The nonprofit, one of Sonoma County’s largest shelter and service providers for the approximately 3,000 people living on the streets, has to scramble to support an influx of people seeking shelter during the winter months.

The increase in service requirements and the recent deaths of several homeless people in the county cause increased tension among the residents of homeless shelters and the workers caring for them, according to Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing at Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa.

“We’ve had a few deaths [due to violence and the weather] in the past few weeks and it really affects the people who knew them or who are worried that it’s going to happen to them,” Holmes said.The resulting tension often passes to Catholic Charities’ staff members.

Holmes has worked for Catholic Charities for over 10 years after beginning at Sam Jones Hall as a recent college graduate. That’s a long time to spend in a profession that attracts people who are not primarily working for their own benefit, according to Holmes.

“Many times I’ll watch workers work themselves to the bone and have nothing to give to the next client,” Holmes said.“It’s something we have to be very cognizant and careful about.”

For Holmes, self-care includes hiking and trips to the beach to recharge her energy.

“If I’m well taken care of then I can care for others, but if I’m not well taken care of I can’t,” Holmes said.“That’s been a lesson I’ve learned the hard way.”

Misperceptions about homelessness

Having worked in the area for long enough, Holmes has seen the conversation around homelessness ebb and flow over the years. Because the county has had a large homeless population for decades, sometimes the only difference is in the visibility of the population.

However, one of the persistent negative stereotypes is that people experiencing homelessness are lazy or criminal, Holmes said.

“No one chooses homelessness and no one chooses to live in those particular circumstances. Something happened that led them there,” Holmes said.

The conversation changed after the fires as the population of homeless swelled with families who had lost their homes and could not afford new housing.

“There was this point of increased empathy after the fires where people who thought ‘I could never end up homeless’ found themselves in that very situation,” Holmes said.

Sadly, that empathy may have decreased again. Holmes has heard people use terms like ‘pre-disaster homeless’ in an attempt to differentiate themselves from other people in the shelters.

Relationship to the Catholic Church

In January, when Catholic Charities shared a post to Facebook asking residents to donate jackets and blankets, some commenter replied with suspicion about Catholic Charities’ connections to the Catholic Church.

The suspicion came shortly after the  Santa Rosa Diocese released the names of 39 priests and deacons who committed or were credibly accused of committing child sexual abuse. Many of the named priests are dead, according to the church.

Holmes describes Catholic Charities as the “social justice arm of the Catholic Church.”

The charity arm is registered as an independent nonprofit and, although it receives volunteers from the Catholic Church, Catholic Charities does not try to covert the people staying in its shelters, according to Holmes.

Seeking volunteers

To learn more about how you can help us combat homelessness and poverty, please contact Volunteer Coordinator Emily Theissen, (707) 528-8712 x 160.

If you are interested in volunteering with Catholic Charities, information is also available


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