Gaya Jenkins warned everyone in earshot she was having a "Louis Black" kind of day, and she was about to launch into a rant. Wearing a defiant smile and a mop of blue hair, she explained matter-of-factly that she was in the throes of late-stage cancer, and she was also feeling some other kind of illness creeping through her system. She was once a practicing doctor in Colorado, but now she couldn't hold down a steady job. And to top off her plight, Jenkins is homeless and sleeping out in the cold on most nights in downtown Mountain View.
"I'm 60 years old and I shouldn't have to sleep on a picnic table," she said. "Something needs to give. In my last dying breath, I'll be saying that something is wrong with this situation."
Jenkins wasn't pleading for help; she was letting off some steam to a group that understood much of what she's enduring. She and about 10 others were sitting in a circle in the front lobby of the Community Services Agency (CSA) for the weekly Unhoused Support Group.
It's a prototypical support group -- much like Alcoholics Anonymous, domestic-abuse survivors or grief recovery -- but this one is tailored for the growing number of people experiencing homelessness in Silicon Valley. It allows them a place to share stories, trade advice and commiserate over the emotional toll that goes with a transient life.
"This is the only place I can go to talk about my homelessness," said one retiree who asked that her name not be used. She has been living out of her sedan for the last four months after she could no longer afford her rent. "I can't go to my friends because they don't know what it's like."
CSA is one of seven local nonprofits that benefits from the Voice's annual Holiday Fund. Donations are divided equally among the organizers, and the fund is administered by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, with 100 percent of donations going directly to the nonprofits.
Now in its 60th year, CSA has traditionally filled the role of the safety net for low-income and homeless residents in the Mountain View and Los Altos area. The center is best known for its food pantry and the various forms of financial and social aid that it offers for low-income households.
A new addition at CSA, the Unhoused Support Group is the brainchild of Janice Bonello, one of the center's homeless program case managers. In dealing with many of her homeless clients, Bonello said she noticed that many were also coping with a brutal feeling of stigma and social isolation. This sense of being excommunicated from your community was piling even more anxiety onto her clients on top of the hardship of living hand-to-mouth. This psychological stress made it even harder for them to take the steps to rebuild their lives, she said. In her own experience, Bonello said emotional support groups had provided crucial help during her own stressful times, and she thought the model could be adapted for the challenges of homelessness.
"A lot of the time, homeless people are seen as third-class citizens and they can feel really dehumanized," Bonello said. "I wanted to find a way so that they didn't have that burden on top of everything else."
In Mountain View and nearby cities, more and more people are falling into homelessness. As of a 2017 countywide report, 416 people were without housing in Mountain View, up from 139 in 2013. Between 2015 and 2017, Palo Alto experienced a 26 percent increase in its homeless population and Cupertino's went up by 74 percent.
At a recent meeting of CSA's Unhoused Support Group, some participants indicated they had become homeless just in the past few months.
Acting as group moderator, Bonello started by reciting some basic ground rules and then reading a passage from "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff ... and It's all Small Stuff," a self-help book on how to approach problems.
The group then launched into sharing time. Jenkins brought up how distressed she was that city officials had recently approved the demolition of low-income apartments on Rock Street. Another woman shared the challenges of occasionally living in a single-room occupancy complex in San Francisco and being bullied by other tenants.
The grievances came pouring out, and there was plenty of disagreement. One lady jabbed her finger in the air as she pinned the problem on wasteful government spending: "The county had better stop housing people who aren't working and alcoholics." She held down a job for her whole adult life, she told the group. So why were deadbeats and drug users getting priority over her for housing?
After each speaker, people in the group were encouraged to respond with positive affirmations, a small compliment or encouraging words. In some cases, group members have traded advice on the day-to-day challenges such as finding open restrooms or a safe shelter to sleep.
Bonello acknowledged that homelessness was just one aspect of what some her clients were facing. In some cases, being unhoused was also compounded by physical disabilities, mental illness, medical problems or other hardships, she said.
"They all have to get ready for each day rather than be depressed," she said. "If nothing else, this is a place where if you're unsure about something, you can at least talk to other people."