Working, But Still Homeless, in California

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Coleen Sykes-Ray Founder and Executive Director of Bags of Hope. Photo by Jordan Ray.

When Will More Than $2.7 Billion the State Has Invested in Fighting Homelessness and Building Affordable Housing Reach the People Who Need it?

When Coleen Sykes Ray started an organization with her daughter in 2015 to help home­less women, the Stockton resi­dent had no idea she, too, would be homeless four years later.

Now, she, her husband and their two children live in an Extended Stay America hotel in Stockton. The family pays a costly $610 hotel bill every week as they struggle to find a place to live.

“When you tell landlords you have a Section 8 voucher, its like saying a dirty word,” says Ray who is African Ameri­can and works as a community outreach specialist for a local public health organization. “It’s heartbreaking because we’re good people. I’m working and I’m college-educated.”

Ray and her family live cramped in a single hotel room, preparing almost every meal in a microwave, with no sign that they will have a new home soon. They became homeless when she was laid off from health plan provider Blue Shield eight months ago. For a few months she and her disabled husband, her autistic son and her daughter scraped up the $1,200 for rent on their house, but when the rent went up to $1,340 they were forced to move.

From 2017 to 2019, the num­ber of homeless people in San Joaquin County, where Stock­ton is the largest city and the county seat, tripled, increasing from 567 to more than 1,500. During that same period in the city of Stockton, the homeless population skyrocketed from 311 to 921 in just two years, according to a 2018 “point-in-time” census report compiled by San Joaquin County.

Homelessness is not just a problem for San Joaquin County. Across California, the homeless population jumped by 16 percent between 2018 to 2019. With a total of about 130,000 people without a permanent place to live, California has the largest homeless popu­lation in the United States.

As the homeless problem started to become more notice­able in Stockton, Ray says she and her daughter would see women, some of them men­tally ill, walking around soil­ing themselves during their menstrual cycles. Disturbed by what they saw, they decided to package bags of women’s sanitary hygiene products – washes, wipes, tampons and napkins, etc. – and hand them out to homeless women.

Soon, what they began as a one-time goodwill gesture grew into a non-profit called Bags of Hope. In their first year, Ray and her daughter handed out 30 bags of the feminine products every month. Between 2017 and 2018, as the homelessness crisis spiraled in their city, they donated about 65 bags every month to homeless women in Stockton. This year, Ray says they have been fortunate to reach about 100 women living in shelters and on the streets ev­ery month.

Most of the funding they use to buy the products comes from donations from local business­es and individuals and a gala they hold once a year. The big­gest gift their organization has received so far came from the Black Employee Network at Proctor and Gamble.

“Doing the work of Bags of Hope is a kind of minis­try,” says Ray. “Helping other homeless people, gives me and my family hope now that we find ourselves in the same situ­ation.”

Fortunately for Ray, she landed her current job on June 24 this year.

Still, Ray says that “almost every dime” of her salary and her husband’s disability pay­ment goes toward their hotel bill.

As Ray balances adjusting to her new day job with the dif­ficulties of being homeless, and helping other homeless women through the work of Bags of Hope, she remains upbeat and optimistic.

“I can’t go out and preach love, light and strength and have a negative spirit,” she says. “No matter what I’m fac­ing.”

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