Oakland women’s shelter faces eviction after 75 percent rent hike

OAKLAND — As the Bay Area’s homelessness crisis continues to worsen, one small East Bay shelter — and all its residents — are facing eviction after a massive rent increase and four months of missed payments.

Serenity House, which shelters homeless women who have survived addiction, domestic violence, incarceration and other traumas, needs to come up with $14,000 by Saturday in order to keep its West Oakland home. If it can’t raise the money, the shelter — which was saddled with a 75 percent rent hike last year — may have to tell its four vulnerable residents to move out.

“It’s tough because it just seems like such a struggle,” said Valerie Harder, a volunteer board member. “And this is just one program doing great work, and if they can’t get the funding that they need — then where do you start? The whole homelessness situation is so insurmountable it seems that no one even wants to address it.”

Serenity House, which operates under the nonprofit Sister to Sister 2, shelters homeless women for up to three years and provides meals, counseling and support. Residents’ stays typically start out with a nine-month healing program, during which time the women attend counseling and are treated for trauma, addiction and other issues. Then the residents transition into programs designed to help prepare them to become self-sufficient — they get help finishing their GED, taking college classes and completing job training. In November, the nonprofit plans to launch a social enterprise program that will teach women entrepreneurial and business skills.

The shelter operates out of a four-bedroom house in West Oakland — its location is undisclosed to protect residents who are survivors of domestic violence. There are four women living there now, even though the shelter has the capacity for eight, as organizers are holding off admitting new residents until their funding situation is secure.

A year ago Serenity House’s landlord, struggling with his own rising property tax bill, raised the rent from $2,000 to $3,500 a month, said Melissa Hellums, Serenity House operations manager and development director. The property is a single-family home, and therefore not eligible for rent control.

Serenity House received a $50,000 grant from the now-defunct Thomas J. Long Foundation that year, and was able to stay afloat. But that money has since run out, and the shelter now is four months behind in rent.

“The gentrification is real, and it’s happening,” said Hellums, who graduated from the Serenity House program herself in 2013. “It happened in San Francisco, and now it’s happening in Oakland. And rents are skyrocketing.”

Their landlord has been exceedingly patient and supportive, Hellums said. But he has bills too, and he gave the nonprofit a deadline of Saturday to pay the back rent, she said. So Hellums and other volunteers went to work trying to enlist the community’s help. The organization launched a GoFundMe page, which as of Friday had raised $3,660 of its $14,000 goal. Local churches, organizations and individuals also have donated, Hellums said.

Even if they can’t raise the entire sum by Saturday, Hellums is confident a significant down payment will be enough to stave off eviction.

“If I can come up with $7,000 by tomorrow, I really think that everything’s going to be fine,” she said Friday.

If Serenity House manages to scrape together enough to pay its back rent, the organization sees smoother sailing ahead. Serenity House recently got approved for a three-year state grant of $496,000, and the first installment is expected in September. And Serenity House recently inked a new contract with Alameda County, which will allow the nonprofit to bill the county for services — a new revenue stream Hellums estimates will generate at least $3,000 a month to start.

“So, good things are happening,” Hellums said. “We’re in a temporary funding gap.”