How VOA Became a Staple in Northern California
by Anne Stokes and Krysta Scripter
For more than a century, Volunteers of America (VOA) has uplifted society’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Founded in New York by Ballington and Maud Charlesworth Booth, VOA has held fast to its founders’ pledge to “go wherever we are needed, and do whatever comes to hand” since 1896. It’s been serving Northern California since 1911.
In its early years, VOA helped Civil War veterans, former convicts reentering society and families living in tenement housing. Today, they’re still serving veterans, families and others struggling with access to health care, unemployment, housing insecurity and more.
“We know what the causes of homelessness are,” says Leo McFarland, president and CEO of VOA’s Northern Nevada/Northern California affiliate. “We understand that many of our clients experience great trauma in their lives that hinders their ability to thrive. We understand that trauma can lead to shame, isolation, and even addiction. We understand how addiction can lead to homelessness, mental illnesses, and lead to an outcome of living on the streets alone and frightened.”
McFarland has been with VOA since 1978, where he got his start helping chronic alcoholics find shelter and recovery services in Sacramento. He saw how the program changed the lives of men and women who were on the brink of death, and discovered his passion for helping people find hope. After that experience, he chose to dedicate his career to serving others. McFarland became President and CEO of the local VOA affiliate in 1985.
“We are operating programs that serve a cross section of individuals from families to seniors all who are struggling with poverty, homelessness, mental illness, addiction and trauma,” McFarland says. “And we do that through a variety of housing solutions: Affordable housing, transitional housing, emergency shelter. We have nearly 400 employees and hundreds and hundreds of volunteers that maximize the impact we make in the community.”
In 1985, branches became affiliates, allowing them to create their own board of directors and decide themselves where to allocate resources and time. “That’s where you start asking, what does our town need? How can we help? What kind of programs can we devise?” McFarland says. “So we began creating outreach programs, began creating shelters, and began creating services that help individuals build the foundations they need to leave homelessness behind for good.”
The focus today
While homelessness continues to be a major part of VOA’s work, McFarland says it’s more than building shelters or clothing drives. It is about helping individuals find hope and reach their full potential in life. This understanding prompted VOA to merge with ReStart, a mental health nonprofit designed specifically for those experiencing homelessness and facing a mental health diagnosis.
Now a program of VOA, the ReStart program pairs clients with a professional counselor and case management services, walking with clients on their path toward independence.
VOA is also spearheading the 1212 Village project, a proposed complex that aims to bring 75 affordable housing units to Del Paso Boulevard. With the lowest rents slated to be 30% of the area median income, it will be a welcome influx: According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are 76,381 extremely low-income households in the Sacramento area competing for 16,487 affordable housing units, a deficit of 59,894 homes.
“We’re adding to the supply side to meet that demand,” says Doug Snyder, Vice president, regional real estate development for VOA National Services. “We support individuals and families with not only safe, affordable housing, but also the vital support services they need to thrive. … For us, home is where empowered lives thrive.”