Gigi came into this world a fighter. “I am a miracle baby, technically,” she says, standing inside her People’s Village unit. “I wasn’t supposed to be here. My mom was told by doctors that she couldn’t have a child.” 

Gigi was born a month and a half premature, on December 30, 1993. “I was the size of a preemie baby but somehow weighed the amount to go home the next day. So they let me go home,” she says. Then, three months later, her mother collapsed in their home. “My dad tried to revive her. But she was pronounced dead at the same hospital that I was born in.”

At only 28 years old, she has been through a lot in her life. She has bounced between homelessness and abusive homes, first staying with a cousin, then a friend of her father, both of whom physically abused her. “Me and my dad have been homeless on and off….But I was basically just…couch surfing, not really having like a stable spot.”

In 2008, she and her father moved in with her aunt in Santa Rosa, where Gigi attended high school. This offered a brief respite, until she met her ex-boyfriend. “He wouldn’t let me go outside at night,” she says. “He was controlling what I ate, when I ate, and how much…but I was like, I have no money and I need a place to stay. I was trying to save up money but most of my money went to him.”

She became homeless again after a series of personal crises, starting with a mental health break in 2018. “I got sent to a mental hospital in San Francisco,” she says. “And then [my ex] broke up with me when I came back. So I moved into my friend’s mom’s house and [stayed] there for three years.” And life didn’t let up after that. In 2021, her fiancé tried to kill her. The next month, November, she was told to leave her home. “Then I had a seizure and died in December, and was homeless basically from there.” 

She went back to a mental hospital in January, followed by a stay in a crisis residential unit (CRU) for 30 days in February. “And then I went to The Rose, which is a family and women’s shelter.….I only stayed there for a week before I went back to the CRU residential unit.”

She found COTS through a friend she met at the mental hospital. “Originally, I didn’t want to come all the way out here in Petaluma,” she says. “I just wanted to stay in Santa Rosa. But the other shelters were either full or they weren’t accepting people because of COVID. Or they just didn’t call me back or answer the phone.” 

While staying at COTS, Gigi decided to help out in the kitchen at Mary’s Table. That’s where she met COTS’ head chef Janin, who recommended she attend Homeward Bound’s culinary school, the same chef training program Janin herself graduated from. “At first I was like, I’m probably not even going to finish,” she recalls. “[But I thought], ‘I’m gonna be here for six months, I gotta do something other than just sit on my butt all day.’ So I went. And then next thing I knew, I’m running home every day like ‘look what I made, look at all the cool stuff I made!’ So now I love it.”

After she had been at the Mary Isaak Center for almost six months, she was able to secure a unit in the People’s Village, a week before her shelter exit date This allowed her to focus on her training at Homeward Bound, as well as her mental and physical health, something she had a hard time doing while staying in the congregate setting of the shelter. “It’s just the best thing ever, you know; I don’t worry about my mental stuff. I still worry about the seizures that I have every once in a while. We know that it’s triggered by how I’m feeling and panic attacks, so as long as I’m just cool and calm and I take my meds I’m fine.”

She has since graduated the program and passed the manager test, and has been working at Homeward Bound in the Key Room, a fully functioning kitchen and event space that not only caters for outside events but also provides dinners for Homeward Bound’s affiliate shelters. “I get $22 an hour for doing something that I love in a place that I like, and I’m happy about,” Gigi says. “The saying is, if you find something you love, you never work a day in your life; that’s where I’m at right now. And I’m only 28!”

The first time we talked to Gigi was last October. She had just secured her People’s Village unit, and was hopeful for the future.

Now, Gigi is living in her own place, an apartment she rents thanks to a partnership with Buckelew, and her spirits continue to look up. “This is also my first time living by myself,” she says. “This is a big transition for me. I’m used to being around like a bajillion and three people and waking up in the middle of the night….But now, it’s quiet. I like it.” 

Though she’s still getting settled (when we spoke to her last, she’d only been moved in a week), she now has room for all her things, and is excited to have designated spaces for different items – a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom, a bathroom. “This is a giant castle to me compared to what I’ve been dealing with,” she laughs. 

Sometimes, when she’s talking to someone, she pauses and savors the feeling of having her own place. “It’s nice to say ‘my place,'” she says. “This is my place, just me. All me, all mine. I did this. I got here. It’s nice. It’s really nice. I’m happy that I was able to move in.”

Talking to her, you would never know she has been to Hell and back. She smiles, laughs, tells funny stories, and shows off her Pokémon plushie collection. “It’s the little things, that’s what gets me by,” she says. “There’s always a silver lining to everything, you know. Just know that it’s a roller coaster; for every down, there’s an up. It’s been [a ride]. But right now I’m going up, I’m goin’ to the moon!”

“I’m not gonna lie, I’ve tried to kill myself a couple of times,” she adds. “But now I’m like, You know what? I don’t want to die, I don’t want to do that anymore. I’m doing a lot better. I talk to a therapist and psychiatrist, make sure I take my meds. I just try to just center myself and do me. 

“I’ve had people say that I wasn’t going to amount anything or I wasn’t going to accomplish stuff or whatever. But I graduated high school with a 4.0, without trying. I went to two different culinary schools…I’m a certified massage therapist. 

“I like to help people, put a smile on people’s faces. Handing them food that’s tasty, giving them a massage or giving them a good mixed drink, it’s just icing on the cake.”