The Sonoma County Gazette: Community News Magazine


Sunshine Hartwell

From a very young age I felt there was no set place for me in the world. I was born in Santa Rosa, but lived the first 5 years of my life in Southern California with various relatives, sometimes with my parents who were extremely unstable. When I moved back to Northern California I lived with my dad’s mom whose extra room was the Carport, which is a type of Garage. I lived there with my younger sister and my older brother. 

After a few years my older brother was so unstable and such a “trouble maker” my grandma kicked him out into the streets. That was a fate I never wanted so I kept my head down and did what I was told. My dad was in and out of my life, often in jail and I rarely saw my mother who was homeless most of the time getting high on the streets. 

The period of time I moved the most was from ages thirteen to sixteen. I moved at least 9 times in two years until my younger sister and I moved into the house of my foster mom, Gayle. Living with Gayle was the best thing that happened to me in my chaotic life and for two and a half years I was stable and seemingly ready for college. I moved to go to Humboldt State and quickly lost the stability I had gained. I struggled with alcoholism and becoming homeless again. I dropped out of college, quit my job at retail store and came back to Sonoma County. 

The month I came back was the same month I started working at VOICES Sonoma. I have worked as the LGBTQ Youth Advocate at VOICES for over a year, and have received support to address my addiction, started working on my mental health in therapy and I have started my transition from female to male all while continuing to further my college education. 

Fighting youth homelessness has become a main focus of mine at VOICES because I have identified it as the most basic need for youth to become stable in other aspects of their lives. I am currently working on a project called the Homeless Youth Demonstration as the chair of the Youth Advisory Board. Our goal is to examine youth homelessness in Sonoma County and take action from as many angles as we can. A group of current and former homeless youth will be addressing the issues facing youth who are experiencing homelessness. I have a lot of hope for this project and I know we will make a difference.

I sometimes still feel that there is not a place in the world for me, but I continue to create my own because I know I can. I now have the resources and support I need to move forward, and my wish is to bring that to others. Many youth have and continue to face similar situations. As someone who has had a hard time creating a space for myself, my passion lies in helping create a space for others.


Jessica Fonseca

When I left foster care at 18 years old, I ended up on the streets. For the next four years, I slept under bridges, along creek paths, in fields, and if I was lucky, I would stay with a friend for a few days here and there. Regardless, I always found myself back in the cold, dark streets of Sonoma County. 


Being a young person on the streets, I had to make a name for myself. I had to earn respect from my peers and prove myself to them. This involved stealing, being a “look-out” when others were stealing, being willing to fight, putting in effort to finding a place to sleep and providing what I could, when I could, for our little tribe. This could be anything from clothes, toiletries, and blankets to alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. If I wanted my people to take care of me, I had to take care of them, as well. We considered ourselves a family, and family always looks out for one another. 

Over time, I made a name for myself but I wanted something different. I had learned about various organizations that helped people get off the streets, but many of them felt very institutionalized and others still made me feel judged. I heard about VOICES Sonoma and as wary as I was, I took a chance and checked it out. It took me a while to trust the staff, but the fact that there were young people working there made me more interested in getting to know them. By the end of the first year, I had developed relationships with the folks there and found myself feeling at home.

By the time I was 22, I had an apartment, was a full time student at Santa Rosa Junior College, and felt like I had an additional family. This family motivated me to do better with my life, and I developed a passion for the work they did there. I applied for the position, and was hired as a youth advocate. 

In my time working at VOICES, I learned what it meant to be a leader, and to be able to speak for those who did not have the opportunity to speak up for themselves. “The ones who are hardest to love, are the ones who need it most.” These youth needed someone to stay in their corner, no matter how many times they pushed everyone away. These are my kids, and no matter how much they screw up, I still show up because that is what they need. They need someone who will not give up on them.

Working with youth is my passion, but so is the battle against homelessness, especially for our young people. Our youth are not meant to be on the streets, fighting for food, for shelter, for warmth. Even a short time on the streets leaves a lasting effect on ones mentality. I have not been homeless for five years now, but I still think about the possibility of ending up there again. I am always mentally prepared for the, “what-ifs.” Our young people need our support. They do not need to be in this position; going through the difficulties that so many of us have gone through. 

VOICES has made a difference in my life and it has also given me the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of other youth. They need us to speak up for them, and we need to show them that they matter.