Editor’s note: In Silicon Valley, soccer parents hold PhD’s, fresh-faced college kids launch IPO’s, and Teslas are parked outside Trader Joe’s. In this world of affluence and innovation, some find themselves literally on the side of the road, homeless.
Into this often overlooked world of homelessness in San Mateo County steps Menlo Park resident Diane Dittmar and her colleagues at Abode Services. Working with landlords, local government, and communities, Abode secures permanent housing for individuals and families in an effort to end homelessness in San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Alameda counties. Last year, the organization ensured that on any given night more than 2,000 people slept in a home rather than on the street.
InMenlo contributing reporter Andrew Olson, sat down recently with Diane to learn more about how a Stanford graduate and mother of three got involved in the push to end homelessness. Along with our story about Menlo Park-based LifeMoves, it’s how we are participating in Project Homeless, initiated by the San Francisco Chronicle, with other Bay Area media today.
InMenlo: How did you get involved in real estate to begin with?
Diane: Well, I took a career pause to be a stay-at-home caregiver for my kids. We had bought a few rental properties, and I started remodeling and managing those properties. I had a lot of construction experience with that.
I also had purchased a cabin in the mountains. I worked at designing new plans [for the cabin] and tearing down the old one.
InMenlo: What was your first experience with this kind of work?
Diane: I rented to a tenant, a widow named Nellie. She was cognitively declining and had physical challenges and now has Alzheimer’s. The way the community came together was incredible in caring for her and helping her, and I got to be a part of that.
InMenlo: How did you hear about Abode Services?
Diane: The Reboot women accelerator at GSV Labs in Redwood City. I was updating a resume in the course and a friend made the connection to a hiring manager and said I would be prefect for the job of Housing Specialist given all my work as landlord.
InMenlo: How would you describe Abode Services?
Diane: It’s the largest provider of housing services to homeless people in the Bay Area, working with over 500 landlords. The San Mateo office I work at started up five months ago. We specialize in housing locator services. Housing Authority Vouchers often don’t get filled and we try to find a place [for the homeless clients].
We’re a “Housing First” organization. [Abode believes that once someone has a home, the services that follow will be more effective.] It’s really a win-win for the county. It costs the county $80,000 annually for a person to be homeless but only $40,000 to be housed.
InMenlo: Can you explain “Housing First?”
Diane: Everyone does better when they have secure housing. What we do is house someone first and then wrap social services [around the client], rather than having to deal with all issues before getting them housing. [Housing first has] been an effective pilot program throughout the nation — lower cost and better for the individual.
InMenlo: What does that look like day-to-day for you?
Diane: Lots of reaching out to landlords. Talking about Abode, so they feel comfortable with the model, because a lot of landlords have had negative experiences with Section 8 Vouchers [Section 8 term used to refer to a series of vouchers provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, through local Public Housing Authorities]. Abode was brought in by the county to fix that.
InMenlo: What have been the issues in past? And Abode’s role in solving them?
Diane: Abode provides comprehensive services. Section 8 gives people vouchers and asks them to find a place to live, but no one to call. With Abode, there’s always someone to call. We provide a bridge so the community, landlord and the client are all happy.
InMenlo: What’s most challenging about your job? Rewarding?
Diane: “A huge part [of the reward] is each time someone is housed…housing someone who’s been sleeping under a tarp for 12 years. It’s also a big win when it’s successful for everyone…when the landlord says this is really great or I really want to help this person. When everyone feels good that’s a big win and the happiest moment of my day.
It’s challenging when something isn’t working out and I need to make adjustments…figuring out how to change the situation. Thankfully we have the power to do so.
InMenlo: What have you learned about homelessness through this new role?
Diane: Remembering that we are all a couple of steps away from being homeless. The homeless are in many way just like us…actually just like us. It’s a really expensive area, and it’s very easy to lose housing. That’s one way [I’ve learned new things]. Another is reinforcing for me that the community is strong when it includes all people and not just high income professionals. Everyone benefits when people are housed.
InMenlo: Any last words?
Diane: I really hope people with extra rooms, those who are landlords, and folks who have guest houses in this area continue to reach out and partner with us to get market rates for their rooms while serving this massive need.
Photo by Elke Teichmann provided by Diane Dittmar