homeless women

Meet Isabel

I first met Isabel a couple years ago when I first started volunteering at The Living Room. I was allowed to sit in on the close “knit” group of women who were knitting, crocheting and doing other fiber arts projects (back in the day when it was possible to sit close around a table inside in cold weather).

The group was composed of women who had been or were homeless or otherwise at risk. The leader was a much loved woman named Mary who came with supplies and participated equally in the free flowing conversation.

In the hour plus that I was there I sketched like mad to get as much of the action as possible, while absorbing the feeling of intimacy, comradeship and healing generated by this group.

With very little time to put color on, I splashed it on where it was most evident. The colorful woman in the middle was Isabel, and I hoped I would meet her later and be able to do a portrait story. Isabel was very private, but finally agreed to tell me something about her life for the portrait project.

Isabel’s is a story of great endurance, and one which was not easy for her to tell. It involves so much loss, discrimination and unfairness, yet she has found her way.

The knitting group has not been able to meet since the Covid outbreak, and access to zoom for these women is not generally an option.

However the Living Room continues to find new ways to engage with women and children at risk. Each time I stop by, I hear of their new efforts to adjust to the challenges of pandemic times. 

To see more of my portrait stories from The Living Room visit the This is My Story: Women and Homelessness gallery on the Santa Rosa Arts website



Meet Marsha

With so many homeless folks in our community and such exorbitant rents and low availability of housing, it’s hard to imagine any of our homeless neighbors overcoming the odds against finding long term housing. But it does happen, especially with patience, luck, and the support of programs like The Living Room (TLR) that helps people connect with and take full advantage of the resources. 

So I was delighted that soon after moving with her kitty into her own apartment in downtown Santa Rosa, Marsha was willing to tell me her story so that I could share it. 

I was struck by Marsha’s sweet countenance even when sharing experiences of homelessness and physical illness. She had made friends with the guards and ticket sellers at the transit station who understood that the benches were a safe place to sleep at night. With a chuckle she remembered, “And in the morning me and the others (homeless) would go to the nearby donut shop for coffee.”  She discovered that the solution to not getting your stuff ripped off while you slept was to tie your backpack to the bench. And although she ended up getting pneumonia, a place in TLR’s transitional housing opened up in time and she got treatment. 

You can see more portrait stories like Marsha’s, as different as the women are, in my art show titled This is My Story: Women and Homelessness, currently on virtual exhibition at the Santa Rosa Arts website. I hope you’ll take a look if you haven’t already.

Meet Sofia

When I met Sofia over a year ago at The Living Room, she was always cradling her little dog Roger in her arms like a baby. The women who came for meals and other services all knew each others’ dogs. Over time Sofia became a part of the extended family of women and their dogs who looked out for each other as much as they could. (see more portraits with pets here)

Sofia was a lot younger than the other women I was meeting and I immediately felt a maternal connection with her. When I heard her story, I was impressed with her intelligence and determination to make her life better despite having so few resources and so many past disappointments.

I learned that in addition to her homelessness, Sofia would be dealing with a high risk pregnancy. Sofia is one of the women with whom I have been unable to stay in touch since the pandemic and honestly that makes my heart heavy. I would like to picture her cradling a baby in those arms and in a comfortable home with her boyfriend with the possibility of going back to school and eventually having her own business again!

Meet Tracy

I’ve been really missing going to The Living Room, hanging out in the groups and at lunch, getting to meet new women and visit with the ones who’d become friends. But since the doors to the day shelter were closed due to the pandemic guidelines in March, I’ve had a bit more chance to visit at the transitional houses run by The Living Room.

Tracy volunteered to let me do a portrait story of her. I first met her when she showed up at Bonnie’s apartment to take her to the doctor. You might remember what I wrote in my Meet Bonnie post:

This is what I love about many of my friends who have been homeless. It’s that spirit of making the best of what one has, and not letting set-backs get one down. As I was leaving, I ran into another participant at The Living Room [Tracy], who was having her own issues with pain from walking after surgery. She was there to provide the ride for Bonnie to a doctor’s appt. People who know what it’s like to need help are always the first to offer it.

I knew instantly I was going to enjoy talking to Tracy.

I got to meet with Tracy in the back yard of the house she shares with other women who have been homeless and are working on finding long term housing. She showed me the well-tended garden she had lovingly created in the back yard, with marigolds planted among the vegetables to attract beneficial insects that prey on garden pests, and an elegant structure for the climbing beans. I wondered how she managed it on a limited income and with her painful hip. 

Her final words in the story were the answer I got, “I am determined to make things work!”

I couldn’t help thinking about the various aches and pains I complain about at my age, and the way I use them as an excuse to think I can’t achieve certain things. Women like Tracy cause me to think again, and maybe get a bit busier!

This Is My Story: Women and Homelessness

I was recently invited to show my portrait sketches of women from The Living Room on a Santa Rosa public art site called Inside OUT There. I’m happy to announce that you can now see the on line exhibition of these portrait stories. This project provides an intimate look at the lives of women who are or who have been homeless. During my year and a half of volunteering at The Living Room, I made friends with the women and children, led art and meditation groups, and sketched stories of the activities.

As women got to know me, they talked about their lives, let me sketch their portraits, and helped me to tell their stories. When the pandemic hit and the doors were shut on indoor services, I sketched the transition and switched to portraits of women wearing masks as they came for the food and other services at the outdoor location.

Please take a few minutes to visit the exhibition on line. You can look at the portraits full screen, read the stories, and navigate through them like a slideshow.


I would love to know your reactions to these picture-stories. Please share your thoughts in comments here, where they would be greatly appreciated.

Meet Victoria

Victoria is one of the first ladies I met a year and a half ago at The Living Room. She was in the knitting group and later I would see her in the art groups. One day she told me about her connection with Homeless Action, a group of grassroots activists in Sonoma County working towards ending the suffering of people who do not have a home. She was particularly involved in the legal struggles to protect homeless people on the streets from being arrested when they had nowhere else to go.

Her story is one of the most remarkable I learned when doing this portrait project.


Victoria would come to the art group that Ruth and I led on Fridays. Sometimes she would burst into song and others would join in. After doing some art play sometimes we would do a free write, like I do in Muse Groups. Hers always revealed a quirky sense of humor that would keep us laughing.

One day she brought some aged wooden shingles she’s picked up in a construction trash pile, and we gave her the paints she wanted so that she could paint the madonna on one. When the others saw what she’d done, they wanted to try it too. The madonna is still in my car and she asks about it. I’m happy to hold onto it and the blessings that flow from it until she has a more permanent living situation.


I have lost touch with my friends who, before the pandemic I would see on my weekly visits. So you can imagine that I was relieved to see her on one of my trips to the The Living Room after the pandemic started.

I sat with her on the roadside while she ate her lunch. She’s still in the shared living situation and involved with yet another group serving homeless people: SAVE Sonoma Applied Village Services and, due to being in the high risk (virus)category, does what she can by phone. But her current housing is time limited and she fears what will happen next, when there is so little permanent housing available, a problem she knows well.

The Living Room continues to serve

I’ve been missing my friends at The Living Room, the day shelter for women and children in Santa Rosa. The portrait project I’ve been working on for months came to an abrupt halt with the Shelter in Place order and The Living Room had to follow along and close its doors to prevent contagion spread among staff and the homeless women they serve.

But now the creative and hard working staff has reopened not the gate, but a window and Monday – Friday is serving those scrumptious and nutritious hot lunches they are known for. . .to go!

But they’ve also been coordinating with other groups to do what they can to continue to serve the homeless and at risk population, which has now grown exponentially. One day staff was making hand sanitizer in the dining room while practicing social distancing.


I wish I could have been there to help and of course sketch live! But I was able to add this sketch, done from a picture, to my growing book of stories from The Living Room.


Portrait Project

The conversations about homelessness are everywhere in our county. So many kind hearted people, who have secure housing, are struggling to understand: how could it be that there are 200 people living in all manner of tents in the pouring down rain and mud of a popular public trail!? We wonder, who are these homeless folks and how did they come to be on the streets?

I have been slowly finding my way into conversations with women to try to understand how this can happen in a county where there is considerable concentration of wealth. Most of the women who come to The Living Room have at some point suffered “on the streets” without shelter. Some have been living in their cars or minivans by the roadside or in parking lots. Others have been staying in emergency shelters and, after long waits, secured transitional or more long term housing. Aside from those similarities, each of their stories are as unique as their personalities.

For the past couple months I’ve been doing watercolor portraits of some of these brave women who have shared their stories with me. I’ve been struggling to condense their complex histories, experiences with homelessness, as well as their strengths and hopes for the future, into a few sentences to put on their portrait.

They want to be seen, not for their homelessness but for their humanity and individual gifts, and this is the pact I make with them. Their stories have been a gift to me, but as I begin to share the portraits I realize that this gift elevates the whole discussion of homelessness to one of our shared humanity. As we listen to each other’s stories we realize that our personal sphere of caring and responsibility has grown and our hearts have grown with it.

And so the Portrait Project at The Living Room was born. The intention of the project is to raise public awareness, raise money for The Living Room’s extensive services for women and children at risk, while also raising the self-esteem of the women.  We will be exploring local venues to exhibit the portraits, events like panel discussions with experts, and publishing a book of the portraits and essays on homelessness.

Meanwhile you’re probably wanting to read the stories too! Over time I will be sharing them here. And I hope you will participate by sharing any ideas about a possible name for the project or venues for an exhibition. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to participate in some way.

Mixed Media at The Living Room

Ruth and I showed up for the Mixed Media Art play Group we’ve been leading at The Living Room with bags of materials to set up in the dining room after lunch. The group is sort of like the Muse Group I teach in my studio, only with a lot of wild cards. We fill the tables with paints and paper and marking pens and collage packets and watch the women trickle in. Most of them are friends now, known to us through their enthusiastic participation.

V. sits down and starts singing the song she woke up with, her own cheerful song about it being an art-group day. She has brought some aged wood shingles she found and she wants to paint a madonna on them. S. brings all her belongings with her so they will be safe while she paints. She has written a poem about homelessness. Soon the two of them are engrossed in their art and singing popular songs.


The tables fill up. We have 11 people and scurry around to get paper and collage packets to all.  Then it gets very quiet as they cut and paste. Later they do a free write, and then share and laugh and appreciate each other’s work.

The following week we are prepared with the template of a profiled face for them to develop a self portrait on. They are able to jump right in with paint and collage, some tackling the work metaphorically and others with some realism.

As they leave the room we are showered with their gratitude. We are excited and a bit tired, but quite certain that our gratitude for being able to spend this time with them at least matches their own.

Volunteering at TLR

I was talking to the volunteer coordinator at The Living Room (the day shelter for women and children in Santa Rosa) while I was there this week. Katie coordinates the 120 weekly volunteers who offer their time and skills to support this amazing program. The onset of summer means that some volunteers have moved on or gotten jobs and left vacancies in the schedule. Just saying. . .if you have time and the inclination, I can’t think of a better volunteer gig than this.


This poster shows some of the countless ways volunteers can provide vital services to these families.


The moms who come to the Living Room are not only dealing with the challenges of mothering, but the added burden of not having shelter or financial means. Here they have a safe place to get counseling, eat nutritious meals, and have some fun time with their children, or even take an art class here while a volunteer plays with their child.


There are so many things to figure out when you’re homeless. Add these onto the already complex array of life challenges when you have a home: laundry, showers, a nap (to catch up on sleep you missed), calls and emails to services you’re on the wait list for, connections with people who have said they will help, forms to fill out, buses to catch so you can make it back to the shelter in time to have a bed for the night, friends who need help more than you do, pets who are like family you cannot abandon just because you lost your home.

The Living Room is a lifeline for these women and children. For me it always feels like walking into a beating heart. I am so grateful for the new friendships I have formed with the women who endure with such strength and fortitude and such generosity of spirit with each other.

If you have some time to offer and want to support these homeless women and children, you can contact Katie Phillips at the Living Room or contact me with any questions.