Michelle’s Story

By Appaswamy “Vino” Pajanor

Night and Day: Why We Need More Beds for Homeless Women in San Diego

 It was a cool night in September 2021, the streets were mostly deserted because of the late hour and the cloud cover that threatened rain. Exhausted and tired of walking Michelle was wandering with her two dogs, knowing where she was going in the morning, she just had to make it through the night, just one more night. It has been one more night for the past 3 months.

Michelle asked an older homeless couple to borrow a tarp. She curled up and closed her eyes. She prayed it would be her last night on the street—emotionally broken she laid soiled, neglecting her cancer treatment, clinging to her few belongings that weren’t yet stolen.

The next morning, Michelle was welcomed into Rachel’s Women’s Center, hot meal, a shower, and clean clothes changed Michelle’s outlook. For the first time in months, Michelle had hope.

Fear & Trauma

Rachel’s Women’s Center provides a safe alternative to the street for women who need shelter. It is an entry point to Catholic Charities’ various programs and services for homeless women in San Diego. Every woman who enters Rachel’s is coping with fear and trauma—if not from her past experiences, then certainly from her present reality of being homeless.

“Every single unsheltered person has an unsafe feeling,” says Antoinette Fallon, Catholic Charities’ Director of Homeless Services in San Diego. “That’s why we take a trauma-informed approach.”

Michelle, 62, is a breast cancer survivor who continues to take chemotherapy pills. She also underwent a spinal fusion and is now beginning to lose the feeling in her legs. Soon, she will be in a wheelchair. Even if she was able to work, employers would not hire her because of the liability.

Michelle became homeless in June 2021 when her disability benefit was terminated without notice while she was living in Tijuana. In the months that followed, her health deteriorated because of the living conditions on the streets. She struggled to get a hold of a single human at any government agency due to pandemic closures and the volume of people trying to get ahold of someone on the phone.

The women at Rachel’s and throughout Catholic Charities’ women’s shelters come from all walks of life. They are former scholars and athletes. They have held high-ranking corporate positions. They are from the Midwest, the East Coast, and the South. They have hitchhiked across the country. They have lived across the border. They are daughters, mothers, and even grandmothers. Some of them battle drug and alcohol abuse—but many of them do not. They are afflicted instead by fear, trauma, and oftentimes, simply the inability to afford the cost of living.

A Short-Term Solution with a Long-Term Goal

When Michelle first arrived at Rachel’s, she immediately received basic needs—food, a hot shower, clean clothes, and safe surroundings. She assumed she would have to leave by 5 p.m. when the day shelter closed and return to the street for the night. It is a delicate dynamic that has come to define this block of downtown San Diego. That afternoon, Michelle’s fate changed in a much bigger way.

“The staff member came to me and said, ‘You’re in; you’ve got a bed,’” Michelle recalls. “I didn’t know what it meant other than it sounded like I wouldn’t have to leave.”

Michelle was fortunate to receive one of the 35 beds across the street at Rachel’s Night Shelter. She was able to keep her two emotional support dogs with her as well. Being off the street allowed her to create a healthy and safe routine while accessing resources to eventually find and afford her own place. When affordable housing vouchers became available in San Diego, Catholic Charities helped Michelle secure a one-bedroom apartment in North Park.

“Beyond providing shelter, our job is to empower homeless women to restore a sense of control in their lives,” Antoinette says. “With that support, they can find their strength within to work toward permanent housing and we’re right there every step of the way.”

Where the Other Women Go

Had Michelle not gotten a spot at Rachel’s Night Shelter, she might not be one of our success stories today. Every day at 4:30 p.m., half or more of the women in Rachel’s Women’s Center pack up their things, not knowing what the night holds. In 2021, Rachel’s Women’s Center served 835 unique women, while the Night Shelter was only able to serve 138 unique women. The gap leaves hundreds of women on the street each night.

 “You’re worried about being robbed or attacked,” Michelle says. “You’re hungry and cold. The smell, the stress, the anxiety, COVID…Nowhere to shower, nowhere to use the bathroom. You feel how people look at you, on top of already feeling bad about yourself as it is.”

It is not just Rachel’s that is full. Our affordable apartment complexes and shared living facilities for women—including those above Rachel’s, Leah’s Residence also above Rachel’s, and House of Rachel and Casa Maria both in nearby Hillcrest—are all operating at absolute capacity.

Claudia Montes, Program Manager at Rachel’s, is moved almost instantaneously when talking about turning women away. “We go home thinking about those women,” Claudia says. “When a woman comes to Rachel’s, it means she has reached a readiness for change. She is at that point where she wants help. If we have to say no to providing her a bed and then watch her walk out to the street where is she is going to sleep, it’s demoralizing—absolutely demoralizing, for her and for us.”

Rachel’s Promise

Michelle lives in pain, both physically and emotionally. Her North Park apartment is her safe place—a space that is her own, where she doesn’t feel like a disgrace to society. Where her shoes will not get stolen off her feet and roaches won’t crawl on her face. It is modest and the money is tight, but as she sits in her favorite chair, she is as happy and comfortable as can be.

Still, fear and trauma persist. Michelle is worried about once again losing her disability benefit, which is currently being reviewed by the court along with her medical situation. Michelle fears the stability that she just found could all go away… it has in the past.

“I don’t want to go back to living in a tent,” Michelle says. “I don’t want to lose everything again. When I see people on the streets, my heart goes out to them—and then it worries for me.”

Meanwhile, Catholic Charities is speaking with the City of San Diego to expand our capacity by opening a new, additional 40- bed women’s shelter downtown. We are right on the cusp of being able to do more for the women, something we have been trying to do for years. The downtown location is critical and an urgent, growing need. It is not just a matter of getting more beds. It is a means to get more women into our program and, eventually, their own permanent housing. To contribute to this large-scale initiative, donate to Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego today.

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