Unique solution to senior housing Program helps pair homeowners with home-seekers

The confluence of two social trends in Petaluma - the difficulty in finding homes to rent, and the aging of the population – has created a crisis in local affordable housing for seniors.

“It’s not news to anybody,” said Elece Hempel, executive director of the Petaluma People’s Services Center (PPSC). “There’s a shortage of housing for seniors, especially people who are living on the edge.”

So this summer, PPSC began a partnership with the new SHARE of Sonoma County, the Shared Housing and Resource Exchange. It’s a free program that helps to match two or more unrelated seniors to share a home, putting together a “house-rich” senior who needs help with home payments or other forms of support, and a “home seeking” party who can’t otherwise find an affordable place to live.

SHARE is headed by Amy Appleton, who ran a similar home-sharing program at Petaluma’s COTS, the Committee on the Shelterless. “Home-sharing is an arrangement by which a senior opens his or her home to another person wishing to share the home for their mutual benefit,” Appleton said. “This program matches any homeowner with a home-seeker, one or both of whom might be currently stressed financially, experiencing life transition, or just in need of support and companionship.”

The mission fits right in with the one of the core values of PPSC, “To allow people to age in place for as long as they can,” as Hempel puts it. Seniors who have lived in one place for years, perhaps with a spouse who is no longer living, or with children who now rarely visit, may find it difficult to make ends meet on a fixed income. Still, they are not ready - or simply cannot afford - a “retirement home” or other senior living facility.

Appleton came to PPSC this summer because she believed it was an organization within which she could “create a template” for community organizations to make connections between home providers and home seekers. PPSC offered expertise in case management and a wide network of people and services to provide a foundation to nurture SHARE.

“The number one goal of SHARE of Sonoma is to maximize the use of existing housing in Sonoma County by assisting those 60 years and older to age in place and remain home for as long as possible,” said Appleton. The mutual benefits can include not only shared costs but help with household chores, cooking, transportation or physical assistance.

This summer Appleton lined up her first connection through PPSC. Katherine Pierce, a woman in her 60s, recently returned to Sonoma County and needed a place to live. So she contacted COTS.

“They put me in touch with Amy, one of the most incredible people I’ve ever known,” said Pierce. “They asked a whole bunch of questions - she tries to get you with the right person or the right circumstance. Appleton knew of a 96-year old woman living in her home in Santa Rosa who needed some housework and other support, and she didn’t want to leave her house. She put the two of us together.”

For the past two months, the match has worked out. What’s more, Appleton was also able to find Pierce a job at Rex’s Hardware in Petaluma.

“It’s kind of a win-win situation for everyone,” said Pierce. “But you need a person like Amy to do it, to put these different variables together.”

One of the key needs of seniors is not just financial, but social. The social isolation of seniors is a growing problem, and a serious one: It’s linked to poor health, shorter life and even as a risk factor for dementia.

The seven risk factors of social isolation all seem particularly targeted to seniors: People become isolated because of health and disabilities, loss of a spouse, living alone, unemployment, transportation issues, social adversity and just aging itself.

“Sometimes you walk into a situation that is not always just a happy senior living by himself, but a senior who needs help,” said Hempel. “So many of the seniors in our community are lonely. Loneliness leads to depression, depression leads to pretty awful things that can happen in a senior’s life.”

Hempel notes that PPSC already may have “an established relationship, sometimes with both of the parties through some of our other services.”

The organization can provide the evaluation and matching of suitable candidates, background checks and the other basic safeguards that any rental situation needs.

“We’re working with the Fair Housing Department to make sure we are helping safeguard both the match and the matchee - it’s not speed-dating by any stretch of the imagination.”

(Contact Christian Kallen at

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