It's That Time of Year

It is me or do most people mull over what to be grateful for as the holidays approach? A recent ferry ride into San Francisco to catch a Broadway play followed the next day by a scenic drive to West Marin to see the banjo-playing Planetwalker John Francis made me thankful for living in Marin. Having a wide range of things to do—and a variety of places to experience them—is certainly something to appreciate.

I also thought about local people I appreciate—Jeff at the hardware store, Michelle at the deli, Kathleen at the market—and that really got me thinking. Isn’t it Marin’s people, not its scenery or closeness to a big city, that give the county its character? Isn’t that something to be thankful for? Last week I encountered four people who deserve our gratitude over the holidays.

When I met Diane Linn she was outfitted with a silk scarf and stylish eyewear—based on appearances she could be a buyer at Nordstrom. Instead, she is the director of Ritter Center in downtown San Rafael, a nonprofit that refers to itself as “Marin’s critical safety net for the homeless and the working poor.”

In matter-of-fact tones, Linn tells me what Ritter Center accomplishes: “Every month, we provide more than 600 families with the food and emergency clothes they need; another 600 take hot showers, do their laundry here and get ready for their day’s activity; and at least 300 a month visit our licensed health clinic—and all of this is free.” Ritter Center has 15 employees, an annual operating budget of $1.4 million and, says Linn with a smile, “We used to be Ritter House, but we’re bigger than that, we’re like a village; so now it’s Ritter Center.”

I met young Cris Jones in the hectic St. Vincent de Paul Society of Marin’s dining room on B Street in San Rafael. She coordinates the nonprofit’s 2,000 volunteers. “We’re best known for serving around 350 free meals a day,” she says, surveying the surprisingly cheerful space decorated with quotes from Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill and John Wooden. “But we’re way more than a dining room.

“Upstairs is our Homeless Help Desk where we provide job leads, bus tokens, gas vouchers, short-term rental help, info on where to go with health needs, possible places to sleep for a night and, in November, we even helped people vote.” Cris mixes a cheerleader’s enthusiasm with mature wisdom. “You treat people with dignity and respect,” she says, “and they’ll respond in kind.”

Mary Kay Sweeney, executive director of Homeward Bound of Marin, has worked with the homeless for 30 years. “Our business isn’t to shelter people,” she says. “We want to see people move forward with their lives.” Armed with a doctorate in social change, Sweeney oversees an annual budget of $4.7 million, 60 employees and 1,200 volunteers.

From its freeway-close location in Novato, Homeward Bound operates 12 programs for homeless men, women and children, providing more than 400 beds a night and serving approximately 1,400 people a year. Its lead program is New Beginnings Center, an 80-bed complex where guests can stay for as long as two months. “But they must save 80 percent of what they earn, pay minimal rent and maintain absolute sobriety,” says the rather stern Sweeney, adding (with a smile), “Everyone needs a place to stay, a place to call home.”

Another important Homeward Bound program is Mill Street Center, located in a gritty San Rafael industrial district and run for the past four years by Jerry Green, a 73-year-old retired property manager and city cop. Mill Street is Marin’s only one-night emergency homeless shelter. “If pushed to the limit, using our cots and couches,” says Green, “we can sleep 55, but that’s it, and we often have to turn away people.”

Walking through the center I was struck by how orderly the place appeared. “That’s what we expect of our guests,” Green says. “After all, this is their home.” Green also pointed out that every night a different Marin congregation delivers home-cooked dinners to the people staying at Mill Street. “Those volunteers are incredibly reliable; it’s amazing what they do.” Likewise, it’s incredible what Jerry Green does.

These four people—and those who support them—are something to be grateful for this holiday season. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

E-mail jwood@marinmagazine.com.