After decades in Oakland, they lost their jobs. Now these women meet sleeping on the street.


The last time Jenny Bruggen opened the doors of her Oakland laundromat of nearly 20 years, it felt like a normal weekday.

Customers streamed in and out of Norge Laundry and Cleaning Village that April day. When it was time to close the doors, she used her keys once before walking away from the business near the Piedmont border where she had worked for more than 40 years. She and her business partner, caregiver and best friend, Lorraine Howard, were homeless and sleeping in motels with dwindling savings, and she worried about how they would get back on their feet without income from the business.

Brugen, 72, and Howard, 50, faced life on the streets at a time when most people had retired or were thinking about it.

The women are part of a trend of people over 50 moving into homelessness. Studies show that nearly half of homeless people over 50 end up living on the streets after they turn 50. A UCSF study released this year found that being homeless after 50 in Oakland increases a person’s risk of early death. Brugen, like many older homeless people, has a disability and complex medical needs. She is receiving radiation for cervical cancer and had a hysterectomy last month. The couple discovered that the homeless safety net simply wasn’t designed to catch them.

The pandemic has left many older, low-income adults with less financial stability, along with job losses and business closures. During the outbreak, Broggen and Howard were forced to close the business after their rent fell to $50,000. As of April, they owe a year’s rent for the laundromat at 3908 Grand Ave. While they never closed the business during the lockdown, their income dropped from $6,000 in February 2020 to $4,000 a month in March 2022.

“Even though we were an important business, people didn’t come,” Brugen said.

Jenny Bruggen ran an Oakland laundromat with her granddaughter for nearly 20 years.  Now that savings are dwindling, they are homeless.

Jenny Bruggen ran an Oakland laundromat with her granddaughter for nearly 20 years. Now that savings are dwindling, they are homeless.

Gabrielle Lurie / Chronicle

Finally, the laundry’s landlord moved to evict them. They had hired a lawyer but he couldn’t defend the inevitable. They have too much debt, and they haven’t found a buyer for the business.

“I didn’t want to evict anybody,” said Alan Heskin, one of the property’s owners. “I hope you are all right. They did everything they could. They were not business people.

In the year She and Howard, who raised them since they were 13, ran the operation, but over the past decade, business has suffered as the women have been forced to leave their dry cleaning business and lost customers.

Eventually, the women were forced out of business and had difficulty upgrading their machinery.

Brugen said she tried to pay the $4,000-a-month rent at the laundromat. Over time, her debt to the landlord piled up.

“The epidemic was very hard on everyone,” said City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bass, who tried to help the women. “I hope they can rest on their feet, at work or at home. It is important that we know exactly how to care for the elderly and prevent displacement.

Now with no income and only $2,000 left in savings, Brugen and Howard are on the verge of sleeping on the street.

The epidemic not only damaged women’s businesses but also cost them housing. As of July 2020, the two women shared a room in a former client’s home. In exchange for rent, Howard did housekeeping and scrambled to find a place to sleep for both women. But the client moved to Hawaii to be closer to her son during the outbreak, so Brugen and Howard had a place to sleep until April, when other friends and clients began sleeping in motels.

Bass’s office friends helped him apply for a job and an apartment, but to no avail. The women have a case manager from Bay Area Community Services, a homeless service provider, but the nonprofit has yet to provide them with housing. The case manager did not respond to inquiries from The Chronicle.

“I feel terrible,” Brugen said. “I’m in a place I don’t want to be.”

Jenny Bruggen (right) and Lorraine Howard at Norge Cleaners in Oakland in 2005. Jenny Bruggen bought the cleaners and self-service laundromat with her daughter Lorraine Howard from her former boss a year ago.

Jenny Bruggen (right) and Lorraine Howard at Norge Cleaners in Oakland in 2005. Jenny Bruggen bought the cleaners and self-service laundromat with her daughter Lorraine Howard from her former boss a year ago.

Paul Chin/The Chronicle 2005

Because of her health issues and disability, Brugen cannot work in a job that requires her to be mobile. So far, Howard has interviewed for some industry jobs at the San Francisco International Airport, but nothing has come of it.

Both women spent decades in the laundry.

Brugen was 30 years old when she started working at Norge in 1982 and met Howard, who was only 12 at the time and often came to Norge because her older sister worked there. Eventually Brugen became Howard’s godmother and the two became inseparable. Brugen affectionately calls Howard “Sugar.”

Tommy Cummings, a longtime customer, said the women have different personalities but are both very caring. Brugen is loud and brash. Howard is more quiet and observant. Both have developed friendships with customers, becoming part of the local fabric, Simmings added.

“They were characters,” Cummings said. “They were always part of the laundry. What surprised me the most was how beautiful they were. Both were very genuine and very honest.

Lisa Gardner, a client of Norge’s for about a decade, said she became increasingly close to the women and gave them money, picked up groceries and bought them several nights at a hotel.

On a recent day, the Howards quickly pushed bags of food and clothing into their small East Oakland motel room, paid for by a fundraiser from loyal customers to sweep Bruggen Street.

The old woman rolled to the door using a walker to go to the motel garden. Howard silently followed Brugen, laser-focused on the path of the Goddess and finally running forward to take the garden bench into the sun.

Brugen says she dreams of getting her own apartment with Howard.

“I’m looking forward to taking care of everything and finding a place to live,” she said.

Sarah Ravani (she/her) is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: sravani@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @sarravani





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