Nita Webb prints out an application for a housing voucher through Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA). She has a client that qualifies for housing but has no way to fill out the application needed to get the process started. Providing these simple services for her clients is just part of the job Nita does as a Peer Counselor to help out people experiencing homelessness in Sacramento County.
Nita understands that every small bit of help can lead to big changes in someone’s life. She has been there – desperately in need of a helping hand to better her situation. Nita grew up in Sacramento with her father and sister. They were poor, but always had a roof over their head and enough food to eat. Nita remembers how her father always did what he could to give back to people who were less fortunate than them. “Never look down on anyone – never treat people like they are less than you, because they aren’t,” she recalls him saying. Perhaps that is where her love of helping others came from.
After having a baby at a young age and dropping out of high school, Nita found work at a group home for girls that both paid her bills and satisfied her deep desire to help others in need. In 2009, when the recession hit, she was laid off from her job. Unemployment benefits were delayed for months and the money Nita received from welfare was not enough money to pay her rent. As her eviction loomed closer, she desperately searched for accommodations that would be safe for her and her five-year-old daughter.
She was offered a space in a congregate shelter, but she was worried about her safety. However, she knew that if she was in a shelter with her daughter, they’d be prioritized for help faster than if she looked on her own. As she was being locked out of her apartment for the last time, she received a call from St. John’s Shelter for Women and Children – they had a space for Nita and her daughter.
Living in a shelter with other homeless women and children provided her with a fresh view of her situation – all the women there had stories. Stories about domestic violence or a job loss or a major medical emergency that drained their savings. They were all alike, all struggling. St. John’s set her up with classes on parenting, women empowerment and job training. She earned her GED and started working at St. John’s non-profit, Plates, which not only provided her with critical job training, but earned her a housing subsidy in a transitional living program for her and her daughter.
Having that rental subsidy allowed Nita to start taking college courses, while still working at Plates. But the pull to help others in her situation was strong. She got a job working for Volunteers of America (VOA) – a job that allowed her to work directly with persons experiencing homelessness. While with VOA, she worked with clients that were sheltering at the Capitol Motel on L Street. Mixed in among those that lived there, her clients had drastically different needs and barriers to exiting homelessness, but one thing remained the same – whether people were sheltering or paying rent, homeless or housed – everyone had a story, everyone had a life before they found themselves in their current circumstance. Everyone deserved love and respect and a helping hand.
Nita got a job as a Housing Specialist with Next Move at Mather Community Campus, yet another connection directly to persons experiencing homelessness that allowed her to make a tangible difference. She saw herself in every client – she was just one blessing in front of literal homelessness. Even as she connected clients to housing, she knew that housing doesn’t equal final security when people need continued help and services to remain stabilized.
Today, Nita works for the Sacramento County Department of Health Services as a Peer Counselor, a person with lived experience that can identify with clients. She is part of the new Homeless Encampment And Response Team (HEART) - teams that go directly into encampments and connect people living unsheltered with benefits, shelter connections, clinical evaluations and referrals. She carries prepaid phones with her to provide to clients to remain in direct contact with them. She knows that she cannot personally help people with everything they need – but she can help them with one thing at a time, one thing that might be exactly what they need to alter their life course, stabilize and exit homelessness for good. She explains to her clients the work that she can do, and the work they need to do to help themselves – a vital piece of the puzzle to ending their homelessness.
Nita and her daughter still go to therapy together to work through the trauma of their unhoused experience. Though stabilized now, the ease of slipping into homelessness is always on her mind. As is her father – who instilled in her the heart to help the homeless – a job he never got to see her do, but one she honors him through every day. Her clients are blessings to her, as she is to them – a reminder that you can change your circumstances, you can accept help, and together – they can end one person’s homelessness at a time.