Stories of Home: How 3 Marin Families Went From Homeless to Housed

Family life in Marin County, or anywhere for that matter, can feel like a juggling act, if one of the balls drops, others tend to drop in succession and life can quickly become unmanageable. This is how many homeless individuals in Marin County say their family lives deteriorated. In fact, at last count there are about 78 families here in Marin considered unhoused. Things change, it could be 80 by now. Now, if the biggest benefactor Marin County is collaborating with local organizations who have been at the front line for years and is bullish on bringing this number to zero — we are listening. 

Homeless Means Many Things

“From a narrative point of view, we haven’t done ourselves any favors by categorizing people just as homeless, one moniker to address everybody,” says Vikki Garrod, Chief of Staff of the Marin Community Foundation (MCF). “People fall into homelessness for all different reasons that manifest differently and need different interventions.” In the fall of last year, Marin Community Foundation announced a new strategic vision that includes a focus on homelessness and affordable housing and partnerships with local individuals and organizations including St. Vincent de Paul Society, Ritter Center, Legal Aid of Marin, Gary Naja-Reise — who directs the County’s Homelessness and Whole Person Care programs — and others. 

Rhea Suh, President and CEO of Marin Community Foundation, believes that Marin is in a position to reach functional zero in terms of homelessness in the coming years, and that it would “not only be insufficient, but also immoral” to eschew that goal. Marin County’s resources, combined with the level of sophistication and experience amongst the coalition of groups working on homelessness and affordable housing, gives Suh this conviction and sense of optimism. 

Below, three individuals share their personal stories. Each was a working parent, who, for various reasons, lost the stability needed to maintain their homes and their family lives. Each has lived on the streets and/or in a car for a significant period of time and are now, with the support of an array of local nonprofits, service providers and Section 8 affordable housing vouchers, have resettled and are thriving in permanent housing. 

Alicia Owens

Alicia Owens is almost 41 and her life has finally stabilized; she has now lived in permanent housing in San Rafael for two and a half years. “It has been a blessing,” says Owens. “At first there were some adjustments. Outside there are so many distractions, you are always on the move and I say ‘always awake.’ The quiet of being inside is haunting at first. And, that quiet is a good thing for self-work.”

Owens grew up in Marin. She married and was living in Oakland with two daughters when her marriage began to deteriorate. “Therapy wasn’t working, nothing was working,” she says. “So I decided I had to leave and make it work as a single mom.” She went through the court custody process and moved with her two young daughters back to Marin where she got a full-time job. “At first things seemed hopeful and possible,” she recalls. “But I was working so many hours, I never had time with my kids. Then Christmas was coming up, and my car payment was late and it was all too much. One by one the blocks just started to fall out from underneath me.” 

As the blocks tumbled, Owens lost custody of her daughters and eventually found herself living on the street. Although she did not have the kind of fiscal and emotional support privilege can provide, from Owens’ perspective, her own “unresolved and unhealed trauma” from childhood was a key factor in her struggle to maintain her family life and her home. 

Although there were several years when it looked as if Owens was destined to stay on the streets, the path to healing and to housing began when Lyn Murphy, the Mental Health Outreach Liaison for the San Rafael Police Department, found her in a park in San Rafael and gave her her card. “At the time I saw Lyn as just another police officer. I was off the grid at that time, with no desire to get assistance,” Owens says. She would not interact with Murphy again for three years, but when Murphy circled back the next time, four years ago, Owens was ready. 

During Covid, a legal precedent in Idaho, Martin vs. Boise, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and established the right for homeless encampments to remain in municipalities unless there are enough shelter beds available for all homeless people. A silver lining of the pandemic for the unhoused population was the permanence of legal encampments which brought access to services — caseworkers, bathrooms, showers, medical and dental care, mental health and substance abuse recovery support. When Murphy spoke to Owens the second time, Owens was feeling especially terrible as she had recently heard news of her daughters and was feeling the heartbreak of not being in their lives, and Murphy convinced her to shelter in the Support Service Area (SSA) encampment established near Mahon Creek Path in San Rafael.

Today, Owens sees that day as the beginning of her road to recovery and housing. “I finally had to just surrender. And I began to trust Lyn. In the SSA encampment I no longer saw her as a police officer. She would come through and shake the corner of my tent and check on me, asking me if I needed anything,” says Owens. It was Murphy’s consistent “happiness and positivity” that won Owens over. “It was a beautiful thing, our connection,” she adds. That connection opened the door to a series of other connections that gave Owens the strength and stability to move inside.

In a strange way, Owens says, being homeless brought all of her internal issues to a head and saved her life, allowing her to face her trauma and to be able to love herself and others. She is now in communication with her younger daughter, but not her eldest, and she understands that she cannot change the past. “Now my focus is ‘How can I do the next right thing?’ ‘How can I be the best version of myself?’ And ‘How can I use my experience and give back?’”

Jason Sarris

Jason Sarris’ time on the streets began when he was about 40. Sarris grew up in Novato, graduated from San Marin High School and held various jobs in his twenties and thirties, including working for his father, who passed away of a brain tumor at age 51. When he got engaged in his twenties, then married at age 30 and had children, his life was fairly stable. “Then came a divorce at age 36,” he says. “It crushed me and I was angry. I had shared custody of my kids and was working six days a week, but my mental health began to deteriorate. I stopped working and eventually I lost my place.”

Sarris had his kids part time until they were 10 and 12, but then lost touch with them. “I didn’t want to drag my kids through my issues and their mother was doing well. They were in a good place.” That was around the time he moved onto the streets, began using drugs regularly and became addicted to meth. “Life becomes monumentally hard when you are outside — the struggle to eat, to find water, to shower, to stay clothed. You’re constantly getting moved by the police.” he says. “I was definitely out there with the wolves.”

Like Owens, Sarris moved to a permanent encampment during the pandemic and his life changed. Living at Lee Garner Park in Novato, he got clean and began to advocate for the unhoused community to create a permanent encampment. The city eventually put up a sanctioned fenced area in the park called Camp Compassion, located behind office buildings along the Novato Creek south of the library. “When I was able to stay at Lee Garner Park, it was the longest I’d stayed in one spot,” says Sarris. “That stability gave me a chance, a chance to hang my hat on something, to decompress and to feel safe.” 

Sarris got off of meth cold turkey while living outside and has been off of drugs for four years. He says that as he approached the age his father was when he died, he thought about what a good man his father was and how much he would have wanted to live. “All he wanted was to live, and I’m like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’” says Sarris. With services provided at Camp Compassion, he began to have regular interaction with caseworkers. “It took a while but the caseworkers really fostered trust. St. Vinnies did a wonderful job. For a long time I didn’t want to get into the housing process, but they kept asking and at a certain point I couldn’t say no. Stability breeds hope. The encampments give people a chance to say, ‘Oh this is pretty good. I can do better now.’” 

Sarris is living in San Rafael, where he moved in July of 2022. He is on the Homeless Policy Steering Committee for Marin County as well as the Lived Experience Advisory Board. He is Chair of Novato’s Homelessness and Housing Committee and heads the Novato chapter of the California Homeless Union. 

“My kids are doing well,” says Sarris. “The older one has graduated from college and the other is a junior at UC Davis. I am in touch and see them for birthdays, that kind of thing. Using drugs was an escape from the pain and anger and that cost me ten years of time with my kids. That is hard for me to come to terms with, but I have to. I am rebuilding my life.” 


Lisa (not her real name) grew up in Marin County. She had two young children when she found herself experiencing domestic violence in Lake County. This began a period of time characterized by transience and homelessness, going back and forth between Marin and Lake County, staying at friends’ homes, sleeping in her car. Eventually, because she did not have the stability needed to raise her daughters, and did not want to put them at risk, her children went to stay with her mother, and her mother took temporary guardianship of the children.

After she lost her children, Lisa says, she didn’t know where to start, how to get her own place, or to get her children back and begin to rebuild her life. In 2017, she went through an intake process with the Ritter Center and began to work with a caseworker through Marin County Health and Human Services Whole Person Care program. She also went into a counseling program for domestic violence abuse survivors. 

“It’s very hard to get counseling when you have Medicaid — because the wait lists are so long — but Ritter Center offers everything,” says Lisa. All of this support meant Lisa was able to get a Section 8 housing voucher, find permanent housing and work with Marin County Child and Family Services (CFS) to regain guardianship of her children.

“I am pretty much self-sufficient now,” says Lisa, who lives with her two teenagers and a toddler in a home in Northern Marin, “But I also have support. I can text my caseworker anytime, or set up a time to talk with him for support.” The services provided by Ritter Center and the Whole Person Care program have ensured she and her children have not become homeless again. “They even took me around to find a place to live, to look at houses. And they have made it so easy for me to stay in housing,” she says. The key to her success, says Lisa, has been setting up goals and working toward them with her caseworker. 

Lisa is thrilled with her current living situation in an ADU, next door to her elderly landlord’s home. “It is such a great place. She is 89 years old and she is wonderful,” says Lisa. “She is always gardening, and she keeps her door open. She is like another grandmother to us.”

Kirsten Jones Neff

Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.Com.