The Press Democrat

On the northern edge of downtown Santa Rosa stands a two-story Victorian home that looks warm and inviting. Nobody lives there, but the living room is usually full. 

The house at 714 Mendocino Ave. serves as the headquarters for the Voices program, which aims to help youth ages 16 to 24 who are homeless, coming out of foster care or both.

The Voices house is not a homeless shelter, but offers kids and young adults who are living on the street almost everything else they might need, including tips on where to find a safe roof for the night.

There’s a pantry full of free food and a kitchen to use, and a closet full of donated clothing.

“When youths are in need of job-interview clothes, or a warm coat, they can come here, and it’s always free,” said LaDarius Spikes, 22, an affable and charming member of the center’s eight paid “youth staff,” some of them still living at shelters themselves. 

When young people, struggling to survive without the support of family, walk into the Voices center, it’s not a middle-aged administrator who greets them, but someone their own age.

“I am a young person within the age bracket we serve,” said Meghan Schuttler, who overcame homelessness in her adolescence to get a college degree, and now works at Voices. 

“I try to encourage others to push through on their own, and lead by example.” 

While the program is about peers helping each other, there is a professional adult staff in charge, led by Amber Twitchell, 34, who considers herself a bit of renegade in the realm of social services.

Not a bureaucrat

After earning a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology in 2002 from UC Davis and a master’s degree in policy and administration from Sacramento State University in 2005, Twitchell went to work in Sacramento for the State Department of Community Services, but discovered that world wasn’t for her.

“I’m not a state worker, and I’m not a bureaucrat, and they wouldn’t let me wear flip-flops to work,” she said.

Now Twitchell oversees three Voices centers — the one in Santa Rosa, now celebrating its fifth anniversary; another founded 10 years ago in Napa, and a new center in Salinas. 

“I don’t have a desk at any of the three centers,” she said. 

 

“My office is my car.”

The Voices center in Santa Rosa is meant not to look or function like a typical social agency office, but to serve as a haven where young people — staffers and walk-ins alike — can work together on equal terms, Twitchell explained. 

“When you walk in the door, you get to talk to LaDarius, not someone you can’t relate to,” she said. 

“And it’s mandatory that the young people who work here go to college, because that’s what they’re telling others to do.”

Modest budget

Voices takes care not to duplicate existing programs and operates with a relatively modest annual budget of $700,000, funded by a mix of foundation grants, Sonoma County service contracts and private donations.

“If you think about Sonoma County services for homeless youth and young people coming out of foster care as a patchwork quilt, wherever there’s a hole in the quilt, that’s where Voices comes in,” Twitchell said.

“Specifically in Sonoma County, we have all these wonderful services, but the youth told us they wanted access to all those services and information about them all in one place,” she said. 

While Voices serves as a portal to social services, its atmosphere is casual and comfortable, unlike official agency offices. The walls of the Voices house in Santa Rosa are cluttered with artwork by the young people who come there for pizza parties, backyard barbecues and a packed schedule of other activities.

There’s a workroom with computers for doing homework or filling out job applications, and a cozy living room with old leather and suede couches. 

One of the most important services Voices offers is the opportunity for one-on-one sessions with representatives from a wide variety of agencies, schools and other organizations, offering counseling on how to find housing, get a job, obtain financial aid or just stay healthy and hopeful.

Resource for youth

One recent afternoon, Connie Rosario of Social Advocates for Youth, which provides shelter and helps homeless youths with education and employment, was among those working in the study room at Voices.

“Voices is a great resource for our youth, and we make referrals all the time,” Rosario said.

The center’s hours are noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Students also can meet there with the Voices staff and representatives from other agencies by appointment, and the center hosts some evening and weekend events.

“Voices is beautiful,” said Spikes, a former Santa Rosa Junior College football player and now the center’s head greeter, “because the kids don’t know where to go to get what they need, but they can come to us and find out.” 

For more information on the Voices program, call 579-4327 or visit voicesyouthcenter.org.

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com.