Vanessa Graziano at motel in Carlsbad on June 5, 2023.
Vanessa Graziano at motel in Carlsbad on June 5, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

On any given night in February of 2015, Vanessa Graziano could be found in the kitchen she shared with about 100 other women and families. She was probably making spaghetti or chili with cornbread, both crowd favorites.

At the time, Graziano was at Serenity House, an inpatient rehab center in Escondido. She was homeless and recovering from a severe addiction to meth that she had been battling with for nearly a decade.

At the height of her addiction, she’d lost her house and custody of her children. She was sleeping on the street, alone. But here, cooking for people who were going through a similar journey, she found purpose. It’s one of the things that helped her graduate from the program.

After overcoming homelessness and addiction, Graziano dedicated her life to helping homeless people. But just last month, she found herself face-to-face with the terrifying possibility of becoming homeless, once again.

Graziano is a familiar name in North San Diego County.

Since getting clean, she’s become a homeless advocate, known for her work sheltering, feeding and supporting homeless people over the last few years.

She started a grassroots effort that provided shelter for unhoused people when none was available, and the news of her endeavor started spreading throughout North County.

But in sacrificing everything for this cause, she hadn’t realized how difficult it would be to tackle the beast that homelessness has become in San Diego County all on her own.

‘I Finally Did It for My Kids’

Graziano was born in Los Angeles, and ever since she was a little girl, she loved to sing.

She spent most of her childhood and teenage years singing in different bands, touring up and down the state, working for music studios and performing at venues like the House of Blues and Belly Up.

She loved everything from blues and jazz to classic rock and pop to opera and classical. She was even accepted to the Julliard School of Music and an opera program at Long Beach State University.

At around 24 years old, Graziano married her bandmate and had her first son, followed by a second son a couple of years later. When she was 28, she and her husband got a divorce, and she began dealing with severe depression and anxiety. That was the beginning of a downward spiral.

“The divorce created this trauma, and I had no idea how to handle it,” Graziano said. “All of a sudden, I’m a single mom, I’m getting old, my dreams are gone, and I don’t sing anymore.”

It was around that time that someone introduced her to meth. Within three months, she had lost about 80 pounds. Suddenly, her clothes weren’t fitting, and her family, especially her sister, began asking questions.

“I kept up this façade for like the first year,” Graziano said. “I pretended like I was working out a lot, and everything seemed pretty normal to the outside world.”

Graziano then entered a new relationship. She stopped using drugs once she became pregnant with a daughter, but eventually plunged deeper into addiction. She lost custody of her two sons, as well as her house.

For the next several months, Graziano hustled to find places for her and her daughter to stay.

They slept in her car, on friends’ couch, or a tent in someone’s backyard. Occasionally, if they were lucky, they stayed in a motel for a few nights.

At that point, Graziano’s ex-husband already had full custody of their two boys. And after a few months, her daughter was placed with Graziano’s mother.

Graziano’s family convinced her to enter rehab two separate times, and both times, she left before completing the program.

“There was always a part of me that was like, ‘what am I doing?’” Graziano said. “Before all of this, I had this amazing life and this incredible upbringing, and I had love for myself. But I just didn’t know how to get back to that.”

It wasn’t until she ended her relationship and sought help from a friend that things finally started to turn around.

“I went back to Serenity House, which is the rehab program I had tried to do twice before, and they were like, ‘Vanessa, last time you literally jumped the fence – why is this time different?’” Graziano said. “And I didn’t know how to explain it, but I just knew that it was.”

At 38 years old, 10 years after addiction began to consume her, Graziano checked herself into the program for the third and final time.

There, she started cooking five nights a week for the other 100 or so patients, she started singing again and playing piano, and she found community, Graziano said.

After five months, she completed the program, and she has been sober ever since.

“I always knew that I needed to turn my life around and I finally did it for my kids,” Graziano said.

Her Work

Vanessa Graziano (center) holds Keigan Shephard, 4, while talking to Jessica Shephard, 34, (right), at a motel in Carlsbad on June 5, 2023. Graziano recently helped the family moved into the motel. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler
Vanessa Graziano (center) holds Keigan Shephard, 4, while talking to Jessica Shephard, 34, (right), at a motel in Carlsbad on June 5, 2023. Graziano recently helped the previously homeless family move into the motel. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

After completing the program, Graziano secured subsidized housing. She then found an apartment in Oceanside, and she got her three children back.

For the next few years, she spent most of her time volunteering with food banks, youth programs and resource fairs.

“I started to realize that we were helping all these people have access to food, or showers or counseling, but we were sending them back to the streets with nowhere to go,” Graziano said.

Oceanside has the second highest unsheltered homeless population in North County, according to this year’s homeless census, but it still doesn’t have any homeless shelters.

She decided to do something about it.

In 2019, Graziano mobilized the community in a way not many individuals had been able to do before. People donated food, other resources and, most importantly, money.

Graziano created the nonprofit Oceanside Homeless Resource and managed to pull in a $50,000 donation. This was around March 2020 when shelters around the county stopped taking people in because of the pandemic.

“There already weren’t any permanent shelters in Oceanside, and all of a sudden there were really no shelter options at all because of Covid,” Graziano said. “That’s when I got a donation of $50,000, and I took that money and partnered with a motel, and I opened up 20 rooms for homeless people to live in.”

Graziano singlehandedly create a makeshift homeless shelter in Oceanside.

She continued receiving sizable donations from members of the community and used all of it to partner with different motels and provide rooms for homeless people and families.

Graziano quickly realized that many of the people she was sheltering needed more than just a bed, they also needed case management and counseling, and some needed help through addiction recovery.

“There were no detox centers open and no recovery centers open – that means I had to be their detox, I had to be their recovery, I had to be their counseling group, I had to be everything because nothing was open,” Graziano said.

Since 2020, Oceanside Homeless Resource has helped 350 people and has gotten 260 people off the streets and into long-term housing, Graziano said.

Graziano continued asking the community for help with funding, supplies and food – and the community always provided. She sought funding support from the city of Oceanside multiple times, she said, and didn’t receive any.

After the first two years of Covid, donations from the community also began to slow down.

Graziano believes people generally stopped seeing Covid as an emergency and were less willing to help causes that they perceived as “pandemic-era.”

“The community helped so much, and at some point, the government has to step in,” Graziano said. “I have learned over the last three years that there really is not a lot of support from the government, locally. I thought there would be more help, and I realized there’s not.”

By the start of 2023, the money was quickly running out despite Graziano’s best efforts to fundraise.

It also became increasingly difficult for Graziano to support herself.

For the first year and a half, Graziano didn’t pay herself a salary, a decision she thought best at the time. Looking back, she said, it wasn’t sustainable.

At the time, Graziano had been receiving Section 8 assistance to help pay for her housing. Once she did start paying herself, that Section 8 money, which is based on income, was dramatically reduced. It became almost impossible for Graziano to keep up with her own rent and bills, especially as a single mom.

Last month, Graziano realized that if something didn’t change soon, she might lose everything and maybe even find herself homeless, once again.

“I found myself constantly having to ask people for money to help me pay my rent and my bills,” Graziano said. “I was always posting on Facebook asking people to donate, and even trying to raise money for myself out on the street. It felt like I was moving backward.”

Vanessa Graziano holds Penelope Shephard's hand as she looks at her mother, Jessica Shephard at the Motel 6 in Carlsbad on June 5, 2023.
Vanessa Graziano holds Penelope Shephard’s hand as she looks at Jessica Shephard at a motel in Carlsbad on June 5, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

She made the difficult decision to discontinue Oceanside Homeless Resource at the end of June.

As she was shutting down her nonprofit, she found a new opportunity to continue doing the work she loves. Soon, Graziano will start working at the very same rehab program that saved her life, Serenity House in Escondido.

“It feels like a full circle moment,” she said. “I’ll have the opportunity to show up for people in the same way the program showed up for me.”

Graziano still continues to help six families and three seniors that she recently placed in motel rooms in Carlsbad and Oceanside with funding from San Diego County. In her free time, she plans to continue trying to raise money for their food, bills and other needs.

“The nonprofit was just a way for me to do what I’ve always been doing,” Graziano said. “So, even though Oceanside Homeless Resource may not exist soon, I will always continue to do the work that I do and have been doing for the past four years.”

Tigist Layne is Voice of San Diego's north county reporter. Contact her directly at or (619) 800-8453. Follow her...

Join the Conversation


  1. So much money being spent and the problem only gets worse. We can’t wait around 10 years for everybody to decide they want to be a human being again. Arrest and jail is the solution. See you in the 2030s.

    1. @SDPD WYA
      I feel like jailing people is an expensive approach. I would hope that less expensive approaches are the way to go.
      I do agree, however, if someone is unwilling, counseling will not help.
      The balance between the two requires thoughtful application and often that is the missing ingredient.

      1. Not as expensive as having them on the street. They cause crime, garbage, property damage, disease, and more. The majority of services for every city and state agency are spent on “homeless” whether keeping them out of gov property, cleaning up after them, providing them with dental care, housing, food, clothes, money. They have no value and each and every one of them cost more than you can imagine.

  2. I am writing to first say that this was the last thing I wanted to do was to put in a complaint but after several attempts at trying to connect with resources, calling 211 with nothing accomplished, being given information on how to get referrals then following the procedures to be told in the end, I have never heard of that. It’s been a frustration devastating and sometimes feels like it’s the very thing that is going to push a 50 ye old woman with a history of domestic violence recently losing her abusive partner been evicted from her apartment has a mental health diagnosis and currently sleeping in her car . I have followed every instruction given to me until I was told, no for one reason or another. I have even been on the CES list over a year and was auto excited with no reason then placed back on that list with nothing but some canned goods given to me. I’ve applied to several apts on the affordable housing app that the Sd housing commission links you to when on their website inquiring on affordable rentals and haven’t heard back it actually seems like it’s not even authentic. Then come to find out there’s more of this going on according to neighbors on my next door app and sadly most of us agreed that 211 has been nothing but dead ends and no real help. Where is all the grant money going and whose the fortunate ones to be getting the help that San Diego is being recognized

  3. Thank You for this essential reporting about Vanessa Graziano’s lived experience in homelessness and how she has applied it to help so many others, at great risk to her own stability. I’ve been a donor to her nonprofit over the past 3 years, have come to know Vanessa and worked with her in our countywide network of advocates for homeless residents. I’m very grateful for her.

  4. Like Don Trump, the homeless stories are getting old real fast! Dan Smiechowski has a solution. Dan Smiechowski has the wrong friends to get elected. Dan Smiechowski thinks the voters are really dumb! I’m Dan Smiechowski please vote for somebody else.

  5. Vanessa is an inspiration to all of us to do what we can for others. I first saw her out in my neighborhood feeding the homeless on Oceanside Blvd before Covid in the rain. She continued sheltering and feeding those down and out during the pandemic when few of the charities were open or active.

    It’s a shame that the city of Oceanside didn’t contribute a cent while many in Oceanside did. Her shelters were successful for 3 years during our worst times and might have continued with some help from the City.

  6. Great reporting. Forgot to ask, if you can’t take care of yourself why have a child?
    Then another.
    And a 3rd….

    1. Wow Craig, what a stand up man you are judging someone for having kids… I’m judging your mother for having raised someone like you.

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