February 14, 2023
Bay Area News Group

Wish Book: San Jose woman says rental assistance ‘helping me put my life back together’

Bay Area Community Health gives temporary rental assistance to keep people housed

Co-Author(s): Harriet Blair Rowan, Data Reporter

For years, Michell Rubillos has taken care of the cats in her Japantown neighborhood in San Jose, feeding, fixing and fostering them. She is inspired by the joy these rescue cats bring her. “He’s helped me with my mental health,” Rubillos said, smiling about Chaplin, a chunky black and white fluff ball rescued from around the corner nearly a decade ago.

Suddenly, she was the one who needed a helping hand.

Over the last year, Rubillos found herself navigating a series of life-changing predicaments when she lost her full-time job as a content writer right before the 2021 holidays, and then suffered a serious knee injury in March 2022, requiring surgery and rehabilitation. She realized: “I’m not going to be able to pay my rent.”


SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 26: Michell Rubillos, stands for...


For a while, she held onto her one-bedroom apartment by scraping together a combination of savings and income from babysitting, homeschooling, and voiceover work.

“I did not want to ask for help,” she said. She has family in Napa that could take her in, but after working for over 20 years, she is turning 38 in December, and doesn’t want to lose her community, her access to health care. Or her cats. When she got injured “everything just went out of control.”

Her piecemeal income wasn’t enough, and her savings had run out. So she Googled “low-income rental assistance in the Bay Area.”

“I found a list of 15 to 20 organizations, and called every one of them,” she said.

After many dead ends, Bay Area Community Health‘s Homelessness Prevention System was the first avenue that opened up. She was warned there would be some work involved, like applying for jobs and providing financial documents, but Rubillos was happy to comply.



SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 26: Michell Rubillos stands for...


Dr. Zettie D. Page, III, the CEO of Bay Area Community Health (BACH), believes their rental assistance program and Rubillos’ story are great examples of how “each health center is modeled to meet the needs within their communities.” They have 27 clinics around the Bay Area, and mostly provide health care directly to low-income residents, including mental health, dental care, and other necessities.

By helping people struggling to pay their rent, “you can put your money where the action is,” Page said, keeping people like Rubillos in their homes. It is especially critical in a place with expensive housing like the Bay Area, he said.

With donations to Wish Book, the organization plans to provide financial support to 80 households that need help paying overdue PG&E, water, trash, internet, and cell phone bills. This assistance could alleviate the accumulating debt that can lead to housing instability and evictions.

Page emphasizes that a large part of the work they do is meeting people where they are, and helping them to access other resources to address any underlying issues that threaten their housing stability.

“I’d like to see a lot more,” Page said of the direct rental assistance, which serves people and families at immediate risk of experiencing homelessness.

In the decade since Page came out of retirement to work with Bay Area health centers, Alameda County’s Tri-City Health Center and Santa Clara County’s Foothill Community Health Center merged into Bay Area Community Health, now serving those in need from Union City to Gilroy. It is one of 1,400 federally qualified health centers in the country, and provides care to over 75,000 people, mostly low-income.

According to the organization, 80 households got assistance through the Homeless Prevention System, helping 230 people stay in their homes.

Rubillos is a little nervous about what comes next. “It’s gonna be hard without their help,” she said “but I know what to do now.” She has been applying for full-time work, and getting more freelance work as her knee has improved.

“I am very, very blessed that they did give me breathing room after 20 years of consistent work,” said Rubillos. After being hesitant to seek assistance, “I told myself I earn and deserve to get a little bit of help.”

Because she asked for help, she’s been able to stay in her apartment, and continue her efforts to care for Japantown’s stray cats. She helps feed a feral colony nearby, also doing trap-neuter-release to control the population, and finding homes for friendly strays. And about once a week she drives around finding lost cats and reuniting them with their owners.

“I have improved my mental and physical health so much, because of the help of the rental assistance,” Rubillos said. “They’re helping more than just giving me rent,” she said, “they’re helping me put my life back together.”


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