Dec. 16, 2017, is a day forever etched into Christina Pressley's memory. That's when she found Heart and Home Collaborative, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit that she now calls her family.
Everyone there cares about one another, from staff members who make sure shelter guests are comfortable to volunteers who cook meals and provide them with supplies.
Last year, one volunteer gave Pressley a parka with fake fur around the hood. She often can't find women's clothing in her size, but the jacket fits her much better than the men's jackets that she wears and are often too large for her.
She teared up as she spoke fondly about the parka — and the generosity it represents.
"It's so warm and so comfy and it actually fits. ... It just broke my heart to have someone care enough about me to get me a jacket," she said.
Pressley also can sleep comfortably at Heart and Home's shelters, where she's allowed to use her air mattress, which is better on her knees compared to the mattresses and cots other shelter guests usually use. The organization rotates its women's shelters among a few places of worship in the Palo Alto area and currently serves up to 15 people. The churches offer space for weeks at a time between November and April.
"It's hard to find nice people in this world, especially when you're homeless. ... It's a blessing that these people care enough about the women that stay in the shelter to help us," said Pressley, 59.
Through a $10,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund this past year, the Heart and Home is debuting a new service to shelter guests this winter: case management. Previously, Heart and Home didn't have funds to accommodate the service internally and sent clients to the Opportunity Center to work with a case manager.
"We now have the capacity in-house to connect folks to resources and help them obtain vital documents," board Vice President Alexis Crews-Holloway said. The manager can set up shelter guests with public benefits, bank accounts and email addresses as well as identify opportunities for permanent housing.
Using her past experience as a case manager, Crews-Holloway set up the training program for the new service at Heart and Home.
Shelter Director Lori Mills has stepped up to the role, and she's a face familiar to many at Heart and Home. Mills has been part of the organization for the past eight years. She underwent about 40 hours of case management training in preparation for this season.
Currently, Mills spends about 10 hours a week putting the training to practice. She's building rapport with the eight women who were at the shelter as of mid-November and identified each of their goals.
"My hope is to have everyone off of the street," Mills said. "So with that future goal in mind, to align things up to reach that point."
In some ways, the additional title solidifies the work Mills has already done with clients. She pointed to a time last year when she spent 11 hours helping a woman get medication and deal with a Social Security issue, facing some obstacles along the way. The woman didn't have a car and didn't know her way around the bus system, so Mills took her from place to place.
"Once I work with somebody and we're kind of on a roll, I just want to get it done and make sure that we make progress," Mills said.
Pressley praised Mills' dedication to shelter guests, from making sure they have enough clothes to asking if they need a ride somewhere to checking if they filled out their paperwork. And it's easier for women to speak to another woman rather than a man about certain problems, Pressley said.
"She works harder than anybody I have ever seen to help the people in here to better our lives and to make sure that we're not forgotten by society," Pressley said.
Pressley said Mills is in talks with her case manager at the Opportunity Center about finding her permanent, subsidized housing that's supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But affordability remains a big question, especially in the Bay Area, where housing costs are sky high. Pressley receives payments through the federal Supplemental Security Income program, but she doesn't qualify for most of the minimum housing rates.
"I don't want to get a home or to rent someplace and then have the rent go up so high that I can't afford it and then be homeless again. That's what terrifies me," Pressley said.
She estimated that she has a 70% chance of finding permanent housing before April, when Heart and Home closes its seasonal shelter program.
"It can all fall together for me and I could be out of here next month. But I know that if that doesn't succeed, that I've always got a place here."
The annual Weekly Holiday Fund charitable giving drive is in full swing, with a goal of raising $600,000 for local nonprofits serving children, families and individuals in need. Read more about the Holiday Fund at PaloAltoOnline.com/holiday_fund or go to embarcaderomediafoundation.org/holiday-fund/palo-alto to donate.