The Brentwood Planning Commission last week unanimously approved the expansion of a shelter for abused women and children by Livermore-based Shepherd's Gate after grappling with the deletion of gender-specific language in the conditional-use permit.
To conform with the state's Fair Employment and Housing Act, the permit approved by the Planning Commission to expand the Shepherd's Gate Brentwood group home for women and children fleeing from domestic violence substituted "women and children" with "persons" to make it gender-neutral.
The following line was completely deleted: "The home shall be operated primarily as a battered women's shelter and is operated for the benefit of Brentwood residents and their children."
Prior to these final changes, however, planning commissioners raised concerns about approving a vague permit in the event that Shepherd's Gate, a nonprofit that operates two such group homes in Brentwood and Livermore, changes its mission or sells the property to move elsewhere.
A faith-based organization, the mission of Shepherd's Gate is to "meet the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of women and children suffering from homelessness, addiction and domestic violence."
Anita Roberts, Planning Commission chairperson, requested the addition of a condition to the permit that would require Shepherd's Gate to provide written 30 days' notice to the city's director of community development should the nonprofit substantially change the project description or mission or transfer the title of the property at 605 Sycamore Ave.
"I think we have to be real careful when we start dealing with descriptions," Roberts said, referring to inclusionary housing laws. "Back in the day, it was considered a facility for women and children, and the laws have changed. California is California, and so we can't use that (gender-specific language) anymore, but ... the brand is the brand."
Shepherd's Gate launched in 1984 with its Livermore campus that today -- having recently undergone its own expansion -- currently houses 70 women and children. The organization later opened the Brentwood facility in 2004. At present, the Brentwood home can serve 18 individuals; once construction is complete, it will house 33.
The expansion on the applicant's parcel will add three living units, a pantry and laundry area, along with additional parking and space for a trash enclosure.
Shepherd's Gate CEO Carol Patterson said that while she prefers the term "women and children" -- as that's who they serve -- she and her team worked with Brentwood city staff for two years to develop the plans with state-approved language to expand the facility and service capacity.
"We're always in need of going over the number 18," Patterson shared. "There is such a high need for women and children to have a safe place to recover from the trauma they've experienced."
She went on to explain that without more space, they are forced to add would-be clients to a waitlist.
"One of the outcomes of domestic violence is homelessness," Patterson continued. "That's why women fear leaving an abuser because of homelessness. On top of that, addiction follows domestic violence. We work in all of those realms, from homelessness to poverty to mental health."
Patterson shared high success rates -- more than 82% who go through the program leave to "become productive members of society," maintaining employment, sobriety and housing.
Commissioner Rod Flohr said that domestic abuse is not gender-specific to women and wanted to know if the organization would in the future serve other residents who were not women.
In response, Patterson explained that Shepherd's Gate applies the same safety rules followed by the state prisons that house people according to birth gender. Patterson confirmed that the organization has no plans to change its mission to serve only women and children, adding that an individual might be considered "only if the person completely identifies as a woman and has gone through the whole procedure of becoming a woman."
"I've got to look after the safety of our women and children, especially the children who are coming from foster care and have experienced abuse," Patterson said.
Public speaker response to the project was mostly positive with only one speaker, Sinziana Todor, raising concerns about the area becoming a "homeless shelter." Speaker Aaron Texeira, a resident of the surrounding Garin Ranch neighborhood, became emotional when sharing the story of how Shepherd's Gate helped his sister.
"I just want to say that we have supported -- and we do support -- what they're doing," Texeira said. "All of our interactions with the residents from this particular Shepherd's Gate have been good."