Hope, Humanity & Housing: 69-year-old gets second chance after living on Sacramento streets

Irene Sotelo is savoring a new start in the shape of a freshly boiling artichoke in her kitchen.

"I haven't had one in a long time,” she said. “I've seen them as high as $5 each!"

The 69-year-old’s past handful of years have been a departure from decades of financial security.

"I had a nice apartment, one bedroom in Carmichael. I've always been in Carmichael. Had my two little dogs. I had Comcast," Sotelo said. "It was five years ago when a doctor botched the surgery."

A saga of complications from a failed intestinal surgery ended with Sotelo becoming the victim of theft.

“I was evicted from my apartment because my in-home supportive care worker stole my money. And, I couldn't make it up fast enough,” Sotelo said. "I was going to sleep in my car. I had no place to go. And, it's not as easy for me to live in my car as it would be for other people because I have to change my bandage four or five times a day."

The 69-year-old found herself at a homeless shelter for the first time in her life. 

"It was like going to a different planet -- it was really, really hard. I would walk down the street wishing I was dead," Sotelo said. “You get to be my age, and nobody wants to give you a job. We're too old to be in this situation. We're not young anymore."

Sotelo is now part of a vulnerable population benefiting from a new solution in Sacramento County.

The county approved funding for a partnership with Sacramento Self-Help Housing’s scattered-site rehousing program. The county-funded program targets individuals with the highest barriers to finding affordable housing – such as people with prior evictions, addictions and disabilities.

The program launched in April, renting homes where several clients live as roommates and have 24-7 supervision. Clients get one-on-one support from case workers who help them get their life back on track. As long as they are making healthy strides toward their individual goals, they can stay in the rehousing program.

"These folks are not paying any rent, they don't pay any fees. So that any income they have, they're able to save during the time that they're with us," said Jeremy Baird with Sacramento Self-Help Housing. "They just simply need to be able -- and willing -- to give it a try. To work on these issues that are contributing to their homelessness."

Sacramento Self-Help Housing is currently renting 10 homes with 50 beds and is still ramping up. The goal is to lease a total of 15 homes with 75 beds.

"Some people are a little hesitant to let us rent their rooms because they're thinking negative connotations with homeless people,” said Richelle Cullen with Sacramento Self-Help Housing. “But, they're so respectful. These houses are cleaner than my house."

According to the nonprofit, in just under six months, the rehousing program served a total of 80 clients, 47 of which are still active in the program.

Of the 33 who are no longer in the program, 20 have successfully transitioned into permanent housing, Baird said. The 13 others had various reasons for leaving the program, including hospitalization, incarceration, voluntary exit or asked to leave the program for not complying with the rules.

“In my experience, this is an unusually high rate of success, especially in light of the fact that we aren’t ‘cherry-picking’ clients,” Baird said. “In fact, more like the opposite is true. We’re actively looking for the most vulnerable people with the highest barriers to housing.”

As for Sotelo, she has newfound optimism to regain financial independence.

“Oh, it’s a lifesaver. I couldn't have been on the street,” Sotelo said. "Not being on the street -- and also having hope of getting a job.”

[This story was originally published by KCRA 3.]

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