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East Bay woman works to reduce homelessness in Berkeley

East Bay woman leads the way on housing the homeless
East Bay woman leads the way on housing the homeless 03:51

BERKELEY -- California makes up about 12 percent of the US population, but our state had nearly a third of the country's homeless last year, according to federal housing data.

Robbi Montoya is trying new ways to bring the numbers down in Berkeley, throwing her arms around people living with homelessness.

"Absolutely. It's the Dorothy Day way. It's to help others do the next great thing when nobody's looking," Montoya said.

Since 2019, Montoya has headed up the Dorothy Day House, a 31-year-old Berkeley nonprofit serving the homeless. She rolled out an unconventional 24-hour shelter two years ago, the Horizon Transitional Village.

50 unhoused people pitched their tents inside an empty warehouse.

"We have to treat people as adults," Montoya said. "That's one of things we did immediately. We got rid of the curfew."

Unlike a traditional shelter, Horizon had fewer restrictions, more room for belongings, and lounge areas to build community. Gregory Warner felt safer.

"Family. You're connected," Warner said.

Montoya says of nearly 150 people who lived at the village, all of them had medical benefits. A third got permanent housing. When the warehouse lease expired in December, the city helped secure a hotel.

Montoya is still looking for a warehouse, but for now, her nonprofit temporarily houses 27 people in their own rooms at the Berkeley Inn. The rooms include a bed, bathroom, TV, microwave, desk, and storage space.

"For many, it's their first time in, maybe a decade, where they have their own space," Montoya said.

As she transitions folks in a four-stage process from outreach -- to the warehouse, to the hotel or to permanent housing -- she draws upon a four decade career in social service, in juvenile hall, tackling addiction and mentoring.

Her work honors her mother, who grew up in a Catholic orphanage.

"She has never not wanted to help somebody in need. It was an inspiration for me. And I wanted to be just like her," Montoya said.

She has raised her now-grown daughters with the same giving spirit.

"We'd buy 40 cheeseburgers, come down the street and give them out," she said, describing their charitable trips.

But it's Montoya's boldness that inspires Dorothy Day House director of programs Roshone Atkins.

"She comes with a wonderful vision that's outside the norm and allows for us to be creative," Atkins said.

"And that's my philosophy. Thinking outside the box. Getting creative. There're so many possibilities," affirmed Montoya.

Whether the nonprofit is cooking hundreds of daily meals, running a drop-in program, driving food and clothing to encampments, or providing safe RV parking spaces, Robbi thrives on multiplying good.

"That's my reward: getting up in the morning, anxious to come to work," she smiled.

So for creating ways to support and lift people out of homelessness, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Robbi Montoya.

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