A tribute to the women doing the work, one woman in particular

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This piece is cross-posted from the Ojai Valley News.

I am delighted to share the story of a friend and colleague, who not only managed to pull herself out of the cycle of addiction and homelessness, but devotes herself to helping others do the same.

To all the women who do the real work of community: I see you. And I thank you.

During the spring of 2016, the remains of a deceased homeless man were found near South Montgomery Street. It took months for the medical examiner to identify him. As full-time reporter at the time, I had a grisly recurring reminder on my calendar during that period: “follow up with coroner.”
Ally Mills, the paper’s circulation manager, knew his identity immediately -- though it took months to confirm her suspicion. I came to learn that Ally knows most of the homeless people in town. She knows their camp spots. And she takes note when regulars stop showing up to the community’s homeless shelter.

During the winter season, Ally’s Thursday evenings typically begin at Ojai’s Presbyterian Church. From Dec. 1 to March 31 of each year, Ojai’s homeless community is invited to eat dinner and spend the night at one of the Ojai Valley Family Shelter’s locations, which rotate each night of the week.

Dinner is served by the shelter staff and volunteers; Ally, joined by her “pleasantly plump” miniature dachshund, Gator, spends the night at the shelter as an overnight host. At daybreak Friday, the duo get back to work. Ally manages the delivery of the weekly newspaper and, with Gator in her passenger seat, delivers newspapers herself to about 100 homes.

She began volunteering with the homeless shelter more than four years ago.

“The first night I went just to feel is out, I think I passed out socks,” she recalled. “You know, these are all people that I’ve known. I’ve been on the streets with them at times.”

Ally, an Ojai native, struggled with homelessness and addiction during her twenties. She’ll celebrate seven years of sobriety at the end of the month.

“The next week I went and spent the night. You just spend the night. It’s just sleeping,” she said with characteristic humility, as if everyone is willing to spend the night with a group of homeless people.

She befriends many of her clients, while maintaining her role as a “rules person,” she explained. “I’m a narc now,” she said with a big laugh. As we talk, she scrolls through photos on her phone, showing me her collection selfies of some of her favorite clients. She stops at one photo in particular, her smiling broadly next to a middle-aged man.

“One of my favorite people wasn’t around this last season, I was like, ‘where is he?’”

He found housing.

The man did turn up at the shelter again, this time as an overnight host.

“The first night that I saw him there in his official capacity, as a host, I just….” she trailed off, distracted by a ringing phone on her desk. “Look, I’ve got goosebumps,” she said, extending her arm to me.
Saturday morning, Ally and Gator take their work to St. Andrews Church, where Ally manages the shelter’s “shower trailer,” -- an RV in which Ojai’s homeless can take a hot shower in twenty minute shifts.

While Ally manages the shower, another devoted shelter volunteer, Gerry Schwanke, makes breakfast in the St. Andrews kitchen. He proudly recites his menu as he cooks: homemade sausage, home fries, eggs, fruit, and fresh coffee.

Ally’s latest mission is add another shower day into her “tetrised” schedule: she wants the homeless community to have access to more than one shower per week.

“When you’ve been down that path, you kind of know, it’s just the little things that make people feel a little more human, like taking a shower,” she said.

I've reported for the Ojai Valley News for more than two years. The most profound lesson I gained in that time is about people like Ally. While her story is unique, her devotion to the community is not uncommon.

I often find myself heartbroken at the national news, at local injustices. And then I look to people like Ally, who give so freely of themselves.

I asked what keeps her motivated. “If I keep myself busy, then I stay out of trouble,” she replied winkingly.

Visit https://www.ovfs.org/ for more information about the Ojai Valley Family Shelter.