Karen Strolia and the Downtown Streets Team Create a Safe Space for Individuals Experiencing Homelessness


Brandon Steffan, Contributor

The perhaps small, unassuming exterior of the Downtown Streets Team, positioned towards the end of Fourth Street, San Rafael, is home to one of the most supportive teams in the effort to combat homelessness in the city. The project is spearheaded by a parent at San Rafael High, Karen Strolia, who besides her hobbies of reading and more recently water-coloring, has a deep passion for helping her “Team Members.”

Our community of San Rafael is no stranger to those on the streets who are experiencing a period of homelessness. Many choose to ignore them. Some choose to belittle or harass them. But the Downtown Streets Team makes an active effort to support people who face this societal disadvantage, providing them with job opportunities and help in innovative ways.

“She’ll literally break her back to help you. Literally,” says volunteer Jason Carley. Carley has worked for the Downtown Streets Team on and off for five years now and was eager to share his opinion on Strolia.

When speaking to Strolia about her life and stories, I was able to interview her in the office for the Downtown Streets Team. Inside the open office space, I felt an instant sense of comfort, a feeling that I was in good hands. There was a casual, yet serious air to the room.

The topic quickly turned to her prior education and the foundation that built her passion for helping others.

With her daughter in kindergarten and her son in the second grade, Strolia enrolled in college. A feat that many see as “only for young people,” Strolia was finally able to achieve her educational goal that was stripped from her decades prior.

Education hadn’t been a goal since Strolia had graduated high school, who had to surrender her veterinary school position at San Antonio, Texas in order to support her mom. Struggling with depression, her mom sought out a solution that unfortunately seems like the only way out for some: suicide.

When discussing the heavy topic of mental health and suicide, Strolia was strong. She did not waver or shy away from the subject but seemed to address it with transparency. It is a difficult topic that she takes seriously, and you can feel the direct and honest way she speaks. A way of speaking that can only come from seeing this kind of thing first hand.

After multiple unsuccessful attempts from her mom to end her life, Strolia stayed home in order to help her, fearing that if she left, “that [her mom] would be successful.” This experience would stay with her for the rest of her life and is part of the reason why she does what she does today. And why giving back to the community is her focus.

Once life began to pick back up, and Strolia settled down with a family here in San Rafael, she started to relax and began her journey to get a higher level of education that was not a possibility for her when she was younger.

Enrolling in College of Marin, Strolia was able to transfer to Berkeley to pursue psychology (with a focus on child development), after a few years. The experience was vastly different. Being an adult in a place dominated by younger people was a unique environment, one that Strolia was able to share some insight into. Having a family, she could not be bothered with the social aspects of college, the Greek life, the partying. She would simply go to class, then come home to take care of her children.

Strolia mentions that she felt like the “nurturer of classrooms,” and took on a maternal role even in college. If her fellow classmates showed up hungover, which was the case in several of her classes, she would be quick to help. Armed with a bag of water bottles, she could provide the help they needed to get through the class.

Back to the present day, Strolia discusses her work with Downtown Streets Team, her sphere of influence, and her stories working there.

After she felt as if she had let her parents down, Strolia began to work at Downtown Streets Team, initially getting the position through a friend. What began as a small job to help the homeless turned into a full-on project to better the lives of our community not just in San Rafael, but across the 16 other cities that the Downtown Streets Team serves.

Her job now as a Senior Director for the North Bay consists of managing both the San Rafael and Novato offices, a step up from her more direct involvement as a Case Manager in the past.

Downtown Streets Team works to provide people living on the street with the resources to get a job, housing, education, and other basic services that many take for granted. Their volunteers help to clean up trash and garbage on the street.
Their website’s mantra is that “Downtown Streets Team is ending homelessness by restoring the dignity and rebuilding the lives of unhoused men and women,” and it is clear how much positive work they do for our community and themselves.
Strolia wants to share the important distinction that there aren’t homeless people, they are specifically “individuals experiencing homelessness,” which focuses on their current situation versus applying an incorrect label or identity.

One of Strolia’s crowning achievements was her founding of the mobile shower project. Called her “baby,” by her coworkers, the mobile shower project is a way for those who don’t have the facilities to access clean running water for personal hygiene.

“I didn’t realize how much work I was investing in that program,” Strolia said. “I was working probably 21 hour days for three months straight, getting up at four in the morning, going to bed at one.”

Strolia felt that her work with the showers was so essential to their other services, a precursor to getting jobs or securing housing, that she invested all of herself into it.

“I didn’t give up until it was built, created, and developed. Who am I to give up on a program when people are in need of a basic, basic need?”

Although her degree is in child psychology, Strolia felt that her understanding of the human brain applies to the people she works with, how some people never received the support in their adolescence, and as a result have ingrained trauma from that point onwards.

Strolia talked about the difficulties of working in such a delicate position and being able to help people who really have nowhere else to turn to.

“When you hear so many stories of people going through trauma while staying on the street, there’s vicarious trauma that comes from that,” she said.

“One of the biggest examples is we have a lot of women who are sexually assaulted and because I’m seen as a woman of power in our community, a lot of the women will come to me.”

“It always takes me time to process that,” she went on, with a more reserved tone now that the topic had turned more serious. “There’s this expectation outside of this work, that we as social workers just take that in and we have some sort of ‘magical sponge’ to overcome that. That is never the case,” she said.

Despite not always having a solution, and listening to graphic cases of repeated trauma, Strolia always wants to help. Even with the mental weight of bearing that knowledge, she continues to help Team Members on the street to the best of her abilities.

She told me the story of one of their unhoused volunteers, a 62-year-old man who had graduated from San Rafael High many years ago, who had set goals that he wanted to achieve. His only goals were to learn to read and to go bowling for the first time.

Strolia and her coworkers were quickly able to teach him how to read and to fulfill his desire to bowl, she booked a session at Country Club Bowl, the local bowling alley in San Rafael. The team was ecstatic.

I was able to talk to one of her coworkers, a Case Manager named Sean Williams, to get a better picture of Strolia at work.

Williams has lived in Marin for 35 years, and after a massive incident that led to both of his legs being shattered, he was forced to stay home and recover. Being on disability for a year, Williams sought out more ways to reach out to his community.

“I’ve always been of service. I’ve been an elementary school teacher and involved in outdoor education so sitting around on disability wasn’t doing it for me. It was an opportunity to be of service to the community I’ve grown up in and Karen was just very supportive of me joining the team,” Williams went on.

Williams talked about the supportive environment that Strolia provided, and how encouraging it was to have a manager be involved with boots-on-the-ground projects.

After struggling with addiction on and off, and living without a home for 32 years of his life, Jason wanted a change. After seeing the Team Members on the street collecting trash and cleaning up, called ‘yellow shirts,’ volunteering helped give him not only purpose but meaning as well.

“Then I met Karen,” Carley began in reference to his impact at Downtown Streets Team. “She showed me a love that no one had shown to me before; she genuinely cared.”

It seemed that Carley could not withhold his admiration and respect for Strolia, as we continued to talk, he would reiterate his feelings towards her, mentioning how glad he was that he had stayed with the Team on and off for 5 years now.

He went on to describe a situation where Karen was able to get him his first house. Karen advocated for him at local board meetings and was able to set him up with an apartment. “It was unreal,” Carley said. “I cried the first time I stayed my first night at my apartment. It wasn’t real until then.”

“She is Downtown Streets Team to her soul,” said Carley.