When Linda arrived in Santa Cruz in Spring 2023, her life had taken a turn she never expected. The apartment she had in northern California was riddled with toxic black mold. Her landlord refused to remediate the mold, despite its caustic effect on her health. She began experiencing vertigo, and eventually had a stroke and a fall that broke her back.
To fully recover, she knew she couldn’t stay in the apartment. Despite her vigorous cleaning attempts, the mold was spreading to her furniture and clothes. She made the tough choice to leave all of her things behind, holding on to only her car a few belongings.
Around the same time, her son was in Santa Cruz receiving treatment for substance issues. Despite how overwhelming her situation was, she had clarity about next steps. “I knew my son needed my support. I was willing to go through anything,” she reflected. She packed the few belongings she had and came to Santa Cruz, content to sleep in her car if needed.
Initially, she came in confident. “I’ve been a camper all my life,” she remembers thinking. She quickly found the adjustment more difficult than expected. Her recent lumbar break caused nerve damage, and the stroke had slowed her cognitive processing.
One of the most difficult experiences was the powerlessness she felt. Before retiring, Linda was an accomplished, well educated professional. She spent years overseeing social work programs in Minnesota and neighboring states, focusing on training to prevent sexual misconduct in the workplace. The advocacy group she worked for was so effective, they were featured in the 2005 film North Country.
“I had the power in my career to get everyone together. I was able to coordinate the team. Say here’s the problem.” Experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz felt like the opposite. She remembers thinking, “Who am I anymore?” What she wanted most from locals was empathy, not just for her, but for all of our unhoused neighbors. “In the process you need to see yourself too. That makes hard hearts soften.”
As she struggled to regain not just housing, but her sense of confidence and belonging, she joined AFC’s Safe Spaces program. While the program didn’t instantly solve her problems, it gave her a sense of stability and safety. She gives much of the credit to Victoria Verdugo, Safe Space’s Case Manager. “If I hadn’t seen Victoria every week, I would’ve failed completely,” she reflected through tears. “Victoria could handle my emotions…There was a sense of respect and communication. It was all wonderful.”
With the support of Victoria and other local agencies, Linda began her housing search. She came to town with a Section 8 voucher, which would subsidize her rent, but the housing search was daunting. She woke up every day and immediately checked every rental listing she could find, sending Victoria the ones she found promising.
Even with Victoria’s support, the ups and downs of her housing search began to take their toll. She was growing frustrated and tired. “I woke up one morning desperate, and prayed to God for mercy.” Despite the fatigue, she checked the rental listings that morning, and came across a small unit in the redwoods. At first, it didn’t seem like a good fit, so she moved on in her search. Over the next few days, she continued to get notifications for the listing, and eventually felt like she should check it out.
She remembers arriving to the showing. “I got out of the car, and thought ‘wow!’” The setting was beautiful, and the landlords were kind and accommodating. While the unit wasn’t perfect, she felt like it was the right one for her. The landlords accepted her application, and she began the process of moving in.
Fortunately, a program through Santa Cruz County bought her new furniture and home supplies, replacing what she lost to the toxic mold. As of late October, she’s settling in well to her new place. Most importantly to her, her son has completed treatment, secured work and housing and is doing well. “Seeing my son come to life again,” she reflected, “that was worth everything I went through.”