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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

1156: “She attracts positive vibes. The whole neighborhood loves her.”

Day 1156: May 18, 2023

Amazing Grace: “She attracts positive vibes. The whole neighborhood loves her.”

For more than three years, Grace Davis lived on Schurman Drive in north Santa Rosa.

She lived alone. No pets, no kids. She spent most of her time in Steele Lane Park, regardless of the weather, making conversation with friends and strangers alike. She seemed to know everyone in the tight-knit neighborhood. The neighbor who lived just behind her. The couple across Schurman Drive. The woman on Steele Lane whose home backs up to the park. The man who walks his dog in the park.

Neighbors, who ultimately became friends, described 58-year-old Grace Davis as friendly, educated and positive. A true source of support. One called her “Amazing Grace.” So when, on the morning of April 5, neighbors saw no sign of Grace, their worry was immediate.

A woman who had become a key piece of this neighborhood had simply disappeared.

Tracy Dorrance, Grace’s neighbor across the street, called Santa Rosa police. The only sign that Grace Davis had lived in this neighborhood for more than three years was a nearly perfect rectangle of dirt, the spot where the grass could not grow under her well-worn 6-person tent in Steele Lane Park. It was the latest in a series of tents she called home for those three years as she forged relationships with her neighbors, kept the park safe for them, and occasionally turned to them for help when the weather got too severe.

The fact that a bare spot in the park is all that’s left of Grace’s presence tells us a lot about our community’s relationship with homelessness, an increasingly intractable problem compounded by a scarcity of affordable housing, deepening mental health issues and, in many cases, drug and alcohol abuse. Grace is one of the approximately 2,800 experiencing

homelessness in Sonoma County, where chronic homelessness has spiked 43% since 2020.

It would be easy to see her as a statistic.

But how many other homeless women have lived for three years in the same city park? How many have defended that park and kept drug use and criminal activity at bay? How many were on a first-name basis with their neighbors, so much so that those same neighbors would take her in when the weather got bad and allow her to bathe and do laundry in their homes?

While fixing up his coffee at a local Peet’s Coffee shop, Max Leroux stops to chat with Grace Davis after looking over her shoulder at her latest drawing. Davis has an easy way about her and will often engage in conversation with strangers, her “community” during her days in local coffee shops. Photo taken Thursday, April 27, 2023. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

And how many prompted worried calls and e-mails when they suddenly one day disappeared? To Grace’s neighbors around Steele Lane Park, she was not a problem, but a blessing. In that sense, she is unique. An outlier. An exception.

But in a twist of irony, our community’s attempt to address homelessness writ large may have caused Grace to lose the place she’s called home for three years.

In March, Sonoma County established a controversial $3 million, 87-tent outdoor homeless shelter just a short walk from Steele Lane Park.

As officials worked to be good neighbors and calm neighborhood fears over the shelter, Grace’s friends say, she became collateral damage in the well-intentioned efforts to minimize the operation’s impact on the area.

Even as officials expressed heartbreak over Grace’s situation, they acknowledged that government policies apply to the many, not the few. If they let Grace stay in the park they would have to let everybody stay in the park. There can be no exceptions for outliers.

Finding Grace

I first learned of Grace and her disappearance the day she was evicted. A friend who lives in the area texted me and was concerned. It didn’t take me long to find her. After a few inquiries, I was told she’s a regular at Peet’s Coffee on Mendocino Avenue.

Grace Davis, who has been homeless for the past seven years, packs up her drawing pad and possessions in a local coffee shop before heading back to the yurt she’s been living in since she was evicted from Steele Lane Park in Santa Rosa where she had lived for the past three years. Photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

There, I saw a woman wearing an off-white fleece pullover, black sweatpants and Ugg boots engaged in friendly conversation with a Santa Rosa Junior College police officer.

Then a Peet’s employee, clearly familiar with her, called out, “Grace, your sandwich is ready.”

The coffee shop is just a short walk from the park where Grace lived in a neighborhood of mostly single-story homes that feels far quieter than the busy streets that surround it suggest. For years, neighbors there say they’ve struggled with issues related to homeless people sleeping in the park, parking cars for days on end, and using drugs.

When Grace settled in three years ago, that all stopped. Her space — she started out sleeping on the ground, then on a pad, before expanding to a six-person tent — was tidy and self-contained. She was quiet.

“She has been very friendly. We were on a first-name basis after I met her.” neighbor Dona Moberly. And she was determinedly protective of the neighborhood park she called home. In a twist that was wholly unexpected, a homeless woman is widely credited by her neighbors for putting a stop to problems associated with homeless people. "I think that she has helped kind of police the area. I thought it was one reason she had been allowed to stay,“ said Dona Moberly, 91, who has lived on Rowe Drive for nearly two decades.

Grace’s home backed up to Moberly’s fence. Their exchanges have been nothing but friendly, Moberly said. “She has been very friendly. We were on a first-name basis after I met her,” she said. Long before Grace arrived, Tracy Dorrance and her partner tried to be protectors of the space, cleaning up drug detritus and doing their best to make it a family park.

But the work felt like constantly rolling a boulder uphill, only to have it roll down again. “It was really bad,” Dorrance said of the park’s up and down trajectory. “I would clean up the park a lot,” she said. “You’d find needles, but mostly the orange caps that are supposed to be the stopper for the needle.”

Grace’s arrival changed things.

“She’s very foreboding. She has a strong voice. She’s a big, tall Black woman and she just goes up there and says, ‘Not here.’” neighbor Vicky Kumpfer. Standing a lean, fit 5 feet, 10 inches, Grace wasn’t afraid to confront people she thought were up to no good. Sometimes she, Dorrance and her partner would team up.

Grace Davis leans against the sign for Steele Lane Park in Santa Rosa. Her tent, where she lived without complaint the past three years, was located just behind the sign until her eviction last month. Photo taken Wednesday, May 10, 2023. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

They called themselves “Charlie’s Angels.”

Over the years that Grace lived in the small 2.4-acre park, there were calls for service about drugs and abandoned cars, but there were no calls about Grace. Not about her tent, or her grill, or her cooler. Nothing. In three years, Santa Rosa Police recorded not a single complaint related to Grace.

And yet, on April 3, 2023, Grace said she was served with an eviction notice. Two days later, while she was away, police removed her tent, sleeping bag, inflatable mattress, grill, cooler and everything else she had.

A new vigilance

Neighbors feared she was swept up in a rise of calls and complaints recorded in the days after the county homeless encampment opened on Ventura Avenue, two blocks north of the the park. The controversial shelter was to be a temporary solution to yet another encampment that had taken root on the well-used Joe Rodota Trail — which for more than five years has been a tension point in the debate over how to address the county’s homeless community.

After a series of public meetings and debate about its viability and location, the shelter opened on March 21, and dozens of people were ushered into 87 tents on the county administration campus. Drug and alcohol use is prohibited, there are quiet hours and a curfew, as well as 24-hour security. But people are free to come and go as they please, prompting new vigilance in the surrounding neighborhood.

“With the establishment of the County’s Emergency Shelter Site at 2550 Ventura Avenue, the City has received increased complaints regarding homeless-related activity in Steele Lane Park and areas surrounding the County’s site, which included an increased tent and vehicle camping in and around the park,” a city of Santa Rosa spokesman told me in an email.

The city’s official stance is that Grace was offered services from the Homeless Outreach Services Team, but refused and “left on her own accord.”

Grace acknowledges she was warned, but says she had done nothing wrong, so she declined to move on her own. Proof of this, perhaps, is that the only belongings she had with her that morning were a tin of drawing pencils, a sketchpad, and her phone, all packed in a pastel-colored shoulder bag she carries with her. “I wasn’t trying to be defiant,” Grace said.

Still, she has no interest in living in a sanctioned encampment — or any other shelter. She’s been homeless for years and has no use for shelters.

Grace Davis’ regular nightly routine includes a visit to the local Safeway gas station to grab a drink and heat up food before heading back to the yurt she is temporarily living in after she was evicted from Steele Lane Park in Santa Rosa where she had lived for the past three years. Photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Her feelings on people living on the street are strong. The majority aren’t there because they don’t have housing options, she contends. “If they stopped getting high, most of them would have places to go,” Grace said. “It’s not a homeless problem. It’s a drug problem and it’s an alcohol problem. There are people wanting to be out there. They have been given chance after chance after chance. “We have to stop tolerating that behavior,” she said.

But in some ways, Grace's choices are tolerated, too.

For more than two years Grace benefited from relaxed enforcement of homeless encampments because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Grace was well aware of these protections, but more than that, she said she proved her worth to the neighborhood. She felt both protected and protective.

“She attracts positive vibes. The whole neighborhood loves her.” neighbor Vicky Kumpfer.

But in July 2022, the protections that had allowed Grace to stay in the park were rolled back, making her vulnerable to expulsion at any time. And Grace, ever confident, is not one make herself small. Her home — a six-person tent, grill and chair — sat directly behind the large brown sign with yellow letters at the main entrance of the park.

‘Well, what about her?’

Neighbors contend the timing of Grace’s eviction points to the county-sponsored shelter. After the shelter opened, the park was becoming a magnet for people doing drugs, hanging out all day, despite Grace’s vigilance, Dorrance said. Dorrance’s home faces the main entrance to the park, on the opposite side of a dead-end street separating the ball field at Steele Lane Elementary School and the park across the way.

Grace Davis enters the yurt at bedtime where she is temporarily living in the backyard of a friend who lives at the edge of Steele Lane Park in Santa Rosa. Photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

In good times, T-ball and soccer games and practices fill the street with cars and the grass with activity. Other times, things feel less family friendly. From her home, Dorrance can see most of the happenings in the small park. “We started seeing more and more people showing up in the park doing drugs,” she said. She and others said they can’t be sure these newcomers were residents of the county site, but the timing seemed to fit.

Neighbors believe Grace got swept up amid complaints about others’ behavior. “Grace just seems like a sacrifice,” Dorrance said. “I was upset about it. I feel kind of sad for her. She has been no problem.” But Dorrance and others recognize the problem as it now exists: Officials from the city and the county can’t respond to complaints about homeless activity in the park while turning a blind eye to Grace. “You are trying to kick some people out and they say, ‘Well, what about her?’” she said.

‘Working fairly well’

Grace Davis’ life changed drastically when her mother died seven years ago. Her journey as a homeless person led her to a tiny patch of grass in a corner of a small park in Santa Rosa where she spent three years being a part of the community. Photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

She is from New York. Poughkeepsie, specifically. She grew up with her parents and two older brothers, with relatives living next door and around the corner. She said she was raised by the figurative village. Her father died in his sleep when Grace was young. The loss tightened the bond she already felt with her mother, whom everyone called “Sissy.” So tight was Grace with her mom, that they lived together until Sissy’s death seven years ago.

College educated, Grace, who has also gone by Qua, Ellen and ElGrace Cole over the years, describes herself as a successful career woman, but someone who was deeply unsatisfied. And, in her telling, working in financial aid and billing at a small, private university, she was driven, focused on material things, and not at peace.

Suffering from stress and high blood pressure, she dealt with short periods of depression that she associated with her need to feel in control of every aspect of her life. When her mother died in 2016 after a stroke, Grace became unmoored, she said. “She was my God,” she said.

Grace Davis found a Bible at a truck stop in Arizona, and found some peace and purpose during her life as a homeless person living in Santa Rosa. She said she lives her life based on “God’s will” and she accepts her situation with grace. Photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Grace had already lost her two older brothers, to leukemia and a heart attack, but her grief over her mother was overwhelming. She sold the house in Poughkeepsie at a steep loss and started driving south. She lived in New Orleans for about a year. Paralyzed by doubt, she bought neither a house nor an apartment. She lived in a hotel instead, burning through her money.

Broke, she started driving west.

“I just knew. I knew, ‘I got this,’” Grace Davis said of a life that had been feeling out of control

In Arizona, she stopped at a truck stop to use a shower. There she picked up a free Bible. Her mother had been a religious person, but until that moment, it had never appealed to Grace. Still, she started reading. But she came to Jesus not in a flash, but rather a slow burn. “It took time,” she said. Her two Bibles were among the things police took from the park, so now she reads passages on her phone.

She had driven west from Arizona and was in Ventura, California, when she says the Nissan Murano she had driven since leaving New York got repossessed, with her and her six-pound Maltese, Buttons, sleeping inside. She tells the story with a hearty laugh, how her beloved pooch made nary a sound as the car was hoisted up. “I certainly didn’t have him for protection,” she said. “What was he going to do? They towed my car, and he can’t even bark.” In Ventura, a woman she had gotten to know gifted her a 2003 Ford Focus. She headed north.

“I drove eight hours,” she said. “God was with me. Oh Lord, that car needed work.”She and the car limped into to Sonoma County in September 2017. Santa Rosa was less a destination than the end of the line. She was running out of gas. When the car well and truly died, she became homeless in a way that she hadn’t been before. She was living on the streets.

Unable to properly care for him, she gave Buttons to a couple in Doyle Park. “Facts over feelings,” she said. “I can’t take care of me. I can’t take care of him.” As if speaking to her dog she says, “You didn’t sign on for this, baby.” She started seeking safe places sleep: Creek beds, among the trees off Chanate Road, parks.

For 14 months, she lived with the three surviving members of a Bay Area commune. But the dynamics in the house were a struggle, and after a little more than a year, she left. She calls that period in her life humbling. Shortly after leaving, Grace started living in Steele Lane Park.

'She prefers her autonomy’

Her world is relatively small. She walks everywhere she needs to go unless someone offers her a ride. Peet’s Coffee is a 5-minute walk from her spot in the park.

Grace Davis, who has been homeless for the past seven years, spends her days drawing and chatting at neighborhood coffee shops. Davis was evicted, her tent and possessions taken by police, from Steele Lane Park in Santa Rosa where she had lived for the past three years. Photo taken Thursday, April 27, 2023. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

It’s where she spends her days. She chats with regulars. She draws. She watches videos on her phone. She reads the Bible. At night, she stays in a yurt in Kumpfer’s backyard. At 12 feet in diameter, the yurt sits on a wooden platform. It has a double bed, two chairs and a small table. Up until now, it has served as Kumpfer’s guest bedroom. Grace has stayed there before, when her tent had been damaged or the weather had been particularly rough. Kumpfer recalls initially worrying that those short-term offers would somehow turn permanent.

They never did.

“I thought, ‘Oh, God, she’s going to want to move in. But nope,’” she said. “I have had her come in and eat dinner with me, but she prefers her autonomy.” Still, Kumpfer has extended herself to Grace for years. One day a week, Grace drops laundry at Kumpfer’s back door. Kumpfer washes it and returns it. Why not? she asks.

“I’m doing mine, and it’s a big old washing machine,” she said. Grace has long had regular access to an outdoor tub on Kumpfer’s property. Sometimes they cross paths, sometimes they don’t.

“I don’t have a lot of money to support her ongoing in that way, but I have resources I could share,” Kumpfer said. So when Grace was evicted from the park, turning to Kumpfer was a logical move. “It was probably two days later, she said, ‘My camp is gone,’” Kumpfer said. “She knew my yurt was always available to her.”

The clothing she wore the morning she left the park for the last time is what she wears every day — a purple long sleeve shirt, black sweatpants, maroon sweatshirt and Ugg boots.

When it’s especially cold, she has a fleece pullover. Her hair is always covered in a variety of cloth wraps or a knit beanie. She always looks put together.“They took it. They need to bring it back,” Grace Davis said about her possessions. In hours of interviews, discussing her clothes is the only time Grace sounds a note of want. “I’m hot as hell,” she said, sitting at a small shaded table in Kumpfer’s backyard. “I’m in winter clothes. I want cooler clothes.”

Her possessions, including cooler clothes are being held by police free of charge for 90s days. She can collect them any time she wants. But she refuses. “They took it. They need to bring it back,” she said.

Grace Davis talks about her views on society from her perspective living without the possessions and security of most. Photo taken Tuesday, April 18, 2023. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

That stubborn streak extends to public services. Grace doesn’t seek any. She doesn’t receive Social Security, no benefits. Grace said going without is intentional, that it keeps her closer to God. “I don’t get to see God’s work if (the government) gives me money,” she said. “Living outside allows me to see his works.” It also allows her conversation and connection with others — one of her deepest joys. If she lived in a house, apartment, shelter or even continued staying in the yurt, Grace worries her connection to others would be frayed at best, cut off entirely at worst. “How would they get to know me?” she said. She wants to return to the park.

“I feel like I live out there and nothing ever happens to me, so they feel safe,” she said. While Grace does not accept government funds and services, she does accept money and she does occasionally ask for money. Friends give her gift cards and cash.

And coffee. At Peet’s, where she is a regular, Grace is never without a fresh cup on her table.

During her time living on the streets, Grace Davis has taught herself to draw, spending more than eight hours to create a pencil drawing for an employee she likes at her local Safeway store. Photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Throughout our hours of conversations, she routinely pauses to greet friends and acquaintances, asking after their health and business. Then she apologizes for the interruption and returns to the conversation. An artist, Grace will exchange drawings for whatever the recipient feels is fair. She recently completed a pencil drawing of a man’s dog. He paid her $40.

After a long interview in the sun one afternoon, Grace began talking about retirement funds, the stock market (which she terms “a casino”) and real estate. She spoke of the value of cash. She then asked if I had any. I’ve been reporting for three decades. We don’t pay for stories or interviews. But it was so disarming, I found myself mumbling, “I can’t do that,” as I pulled out two $5 bills. On another morning, after I asked if she has any way to store food now that her cooler is gone, I bought her a coffee and a sandwich. As a person, I didn’t give it a second thought. As a journalist, I wondered if it was the right thing to do.

Complicating the debate

As the debate over how to handle people experiencing homelessness among us turns increasingly black and white, Grace’s situation is decidedly gray. Society, and particularly government, are not well suited to deal with exceptions. They complicate the debate. Rules and policies are crafted for the many, not the few.

“Grace’s situation points out something that government struggles with,” Kiff, the county’s point person on homelessness, told me. “We tend to work in absolutes: ‘You absolutely cannot camp here. You absolutely need a home with four walls and a roof.’”

But things work until they don’t.

“Some … can survive very effectively and happily with little effect to a neighborhood like Grace did,” he said. “But there isn’t a carve-out for Grace.” District 4 Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes the park as well as the county’s sanctioned camp, called Grace’s situation heartbreaking. “I think it’s a beautiful example of how things can work in a community that is close knit,” Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Victoria Fleming

But officials cannot allow her to stay while barring others. And nobody -- not neighbors, not Grace, not city and county officials -- wants multiple people sleeping in that park. “That would be illegal, to provide one person an exemption and not provide the same to others,” Gore said. “This is based on rights, not personality. While that is painful, rights come with responsibilities, too.”

Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Victoria Fleming, whose district includes the park, said she’s never received a complaint about Grace, only “gratitude.” “I think it’s a beautiful example of how things can work in a community that is close knit,” she said.

But Fleming, too, said it’s problematic to create systems that benefit the few, or in this case, the one. “That’s really risky,” she said. “But I also think that government needs to be creative and innovative. We should be able to try things and if they don’t work, try something else. But we are incredibly risk averse.”

I ask Grace what she wants, how she sees this ending. Kumpfer has house guests coming. She needs her yurt back. Grace looks excited at the question. But offers no answer. It’s God’s will, she said.

“I can’t wait to see what happens,” she said. “I want to guess, but I’m not going there. I have learned to wait and see. It’s going to be good and it’s going to be good for all of us, and I can’t wait to see it.“

After Grace Davis was evicted from Steele Lane Park in Santa Rosa where she had lived for the past three years, a friend who lives at the edge of the park offered her backyard yurt as shelter. The spacious permanent tent is a welcome respite but only temporary as she finds a new camping location. Photo taken Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Link to the full Press Democrat Article:

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

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