After as long as a decade of taking in down-on-their-luck strangers, Erler is now on the streets herself, after losing a dispute with neighbors and the city of Vallejo. And now she's living out of her Jeep with two other people and a dog.
Erler, featured in the Times-Herald last summer for her efforts to assist the homeless, explained why she adopted the needy, at her own expense -- even holding garage sales to raise cash, as she herself lives on a set income.
"Everybody's one step to homelessness, even if they're rich," Erler said last year.
She didn't expect that her statement would only months later apply to her.
"This is the first time I've ever been like this, I've always kept my head above water. But I went under water," Erler, 63, said in a matter-of-fact way during a recent interview at the Times-Herald.
In discussing her current situation, the soft-spoken Erler rapidly lays out her situation, suggesting that some problems cited by the city in court for her removal existed, but that she did not believe she was the source of them.
Her neighbors and city officials, however, felt the former Illinois Street renter had her eviction coming, complaining of a junky yard and run-ins with her guests, among other issues. Reports of anywhere from 10 to 30 people regularly coming and going from the home, police arrests and verbal assaults on neighbors were also alleged.
Police, neighbor complaints
Erler contends that some of the complaints came from her -- calling police on problem people in the neighborhood that were not staying with her. Vallejo police Lt. John Whitney said there was an April 2012, incident involving a drive-by shooting at the house, with Erler apparently there at the time.
Whitney could not immediately find reports of other major police action related to the property in the past year, though he said he recalled complaints of squatters at the home.
The city Code Enforcement Division was also reportedly regular visitors to Erler's home, which she rented from her brother for about a year. In July, Erler and her guests were evicted after the city and its Neighborhood Law Program secured a court order.
"There were numerous, numerous complaints," Neighborhood Law attorney Eli Flushman said in an interview. "It wasn't just our office working at this site. Code Enforcement was constantly, yearly working on the issue."
City goes to court
Flushman said the city presented to a judge evidence of nuisance activity happening just this year, including an alleged variety of people coming and going daily, some acting inebriated and stumbling around the neighborhood or catcalling.
Flushman said seeking this type of court order against Erler and the property owner is admittedly an atypical move for the city. The move primarily stemmed from reported violations of Vallejo's nuisance ordinance and an "exorbitant use of public services" -- meaning city staff time, Flushman said.
He added that he and others tried to work with Erler's brother, Charlie Monaco, who lives out of state, to tend to reported problems at the home. Code Enforcement officer David Sidie said last week that in addition to sending letters to the property owner, he also spoke directly to Erler at her home -- pointing out exactly what problem cleanup issues needed addressing in her yard.
Sidie said he tried to work with Erler, giving her several extensions to deal with problems, but acknowledged "a lot of pressure from neighbors."
Reviewing cases opened and closed since Erler said she moved in last year, Vallejo Code Enforcement Manager Nimat Shakoor-Grantham listed at least three major issues, initiated through a bevy of neighbor complaints of the property "looking like a junkyard" and trash spilling into adjacent yards.
"It was a monstrosity with the trash and debris that was taken in January of 2013," Shakoor-Grantham said. "From these pictures, I can see that this place was a wreck. Stuff was piled up to the windows, on the outside."
Erler acknowledges having had some problem guests in her year at the Illinois Street home, like one woman who would not stop yelling and cussing.
But she said the city's and neighbors' largest concerns stem from before her tenancy at the home, back to three years ago.
"(The city) said that there were two neighbors trying to get rid of the people that live there because these other people kept coming back over there (in previous years) -- but I didn't know about what happened until we went to court," Erler said.
Erler said she moved into the property when her brother took over as executor of their mother's estate from her stepfather last year. The home, a change from her previous long-term Butte Street rental, meant paying $900 instead of $600 a month, but it also translated into more room to spread out and take others in, she said.
"Maybe that was stupid," Erler conceded in a recent interview about the decision to move.
Flushman was aware that Erler's home was being used by many as a place to stay.
"There is a process for running a community care facility," Flushman said. "It's unfortunate that she didn't do it, but there is a reason why there is a process. There are certain safeguards that are put in place so that it does not rise to this level.... (And) it can't come at the expense of the neighbors."
Erler responded to Flushman's comments, saying that she tried to negotiate a plan to get an abandoned city building donated for use as an extra city homeless shelter "so they would be out of the weather." Erler said she envisioned taking on the job of opening the shelter for nighttime stays and locking it up during the day, she said. That effort, she said, yielded no fruit.
Tending to others
Long before moving to Illinois Street, Erler found herself drawn to doing what she could for others in trouble, having spent years professionally providing home health care for Solano County and fostering children in the 1970s.
After Erler's husband died and an older client passed away 12 years ago, Erler struggled to bring in enough income to continue making payments on her home -- eventually losing the property.
Not long after, Erler's generosity earned her some visitors.
"How it started out was there were about five of them sleeping on my porch when it rained. And I'd bring them out coffee and donuts and sandwiches," Erler explained in an interview last year at a city homeless workshop. "And some of them were living in my backyard. I gathered up tents for them, and sometimes I have to go buy clothes for them -- they don't have no clothes."
Those who had meager incomes coming in were asked to contribute to household costs to stay, Erler said.
Erler said she particularly looked out for women, as they often face particular dangers or potential sexual assault out on the street. Erler tells the story of a mother with children and no income who needed a break, and was able to get back on her feet after a stay with her.
Homeless persons' advocate Maria Guevara, founder of Vallejo Together, said she has seen at least one of Erler's former guests out on the street since the eviction, looking "lost and hopeless."
"The women who are battered, the women who escaped prostitution, that's who I'm worried about," Guevara said. "I still see for myself, the people who weren't staying with her, they were living in the bushes. She was taking them to doctor's appointments, to get SSI, welfare, for the food. I haven't heard of anyone becoming homeless for housing the homeless. She did offer people a place and it was safe."
However, Erler's boyfriend Mike Bernal, who is in the same financial straits as Erler, said those still staying with Erler when she was evicted offered to "help" her move, but were more likely to help themselves to Erler's possessions.
Now, Erler has been faced daily for nearly two months facing the dual questions of how she can shelter others, when she cannot even shelter herself. She said her days are spent looking for day work, doing yard maintenance and standing in line with others applying for welfare benefits.
"The doors are closed, for some reason," Erler said of those she once helped. "That's what hurts me so much. Is it worth it to help people, now? It made me feel good when I did, but (now) it's like a slap in the face."
In several recent interviews, Erler said she now lives in her car with Bernal, an Alaskan husky named "Luna," who was until recently pregnant with a litter of puppies, as well as a long-time friend.
Reportedly having no warning of the pending eviction, Erler said she went into debt borrowing money to pay for a storage space for her possessions, and could ill afford daily camping fees on her monthly Social Security checks. Now, she is allowed to park up to eight hours at night at a highway rest stop to sleep and has frequented various outdoor homeless encampments in the city.
"I'm only on Social Security, and it's hard to get a deposit together," Erler said. "Somebody offered us a place, but they want a deposit first."
Rent at a local trailer park also would be within Erler's reach, she said, if someone were able to sell an unneeded old trailer to her at a good price, she said.
Otherwise, Erler said she does not know what to do next.
Contact staff writer Jessica A. York at (707) 553-6834 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JYVallejo.