Year: 2016

Volume X – Hayley Benham-Archdeacon, DST Coordinator

By Hayley Benham-Archdeacon, DST San Francisco Coordinator

Something our Project Director says is if we could just get everyone in the room with our Team Members, we would end homelessness. I fully believe that. They are the most human humans. I don’t know how else to say it.

While of course the breadth of personalities and life stories is as wide as possible across our Team, I can speak in some generalizations: our Team Members have been through it. They’ve had the worst cards dealt to them but show up on our doorstep ready to play their hand the best they can. They have a sense of humor about life and themselves, and they’ve used it to survive. Our Team Members are embodiments of perseverance and redemption, the ultimate human qualities. How could you not love them! I couldn’t imagine anyone placing judgment on our Team Members after taking the time to hear their stories. You’d realize how much human potential we are letting go unrealized, and you’d work as hard as DST to help our people into lives of stability.

The start of my time with Downtown Streets Team came with an expiration date. I knew I would show up for a few months, inevitably bond with charming and unique Team Members, and then leave full of regret. That was the plan.

I have a policy background, and have always admired DST from that perspective. There’s this forever unanswered question in political science: does culture influence policy, or does policy influence culture? I’ve always viewed DST’s work as filling a policy gap: there are policy systems for homeless people, and systems for employed and housed people, but nothing connecting the two. We have shelter systems and free meal programs that get people off the street and somewhat fed day by day, but keep unhoused individuals in the same status of life. Then we have systems that continue to privilege the already privileged: when you apply for a job, they ensure sure you’ve never committed a crime or experienced large lapses in employment. If you want an apartment, they check your credit score and housing history. These policy systems keep everyone where they are, and as a result keep most resources and opportunities inaccessible to homeless individuals, even if they’re at a point in life where they’re ready to make a change. You can’t just tell a person sitting on the sidewalk to get a job when as they formally stand, institutions offer no bridge from the street to a stable life. DST is that middle ground, the system that gives displaced people steps to elevate themselves off the street.

It’s the difference between mitigation and reform: we do need beds and meals to ease short-term suffering, but we can’t rely on shelters and free food as transformative agencies. We can’t only treat the symptoms and not treat the cause.

Many of us think homelessness isn’t relevant to our lives. There is us, and then there is “the homeless,” that one thing that happens to that one group of people. But realistically, all paths lead to the street: mental health, substance use and job loss, sure, but also domestic violence, freak accidents, hospital bills, the end of relationships, or even the loss of a bank card and an apathetic landlord.

Homelessness isn’t good for anyone. Not to diminish the experiences of homeless folks themselves, but it isn’t easy to walk by that much human despair everyday. Even if you pretend you don’t see it, it gets in. It takes energy to block yourself off from compassion, to look at someone in suffering and tell yourself not to feel bad because they must have done something to deserve their circumstance. I understand why people do this. We think we’re saving ourselves the time and mental wellbeing it’d take to worry about those people as if they’re human, but really, it’s taking more out of us in the long run. Shutting down the compassionate parts of ourselves takes a human toll on everyone.

But I get why it’s hard to let yourself feel fully if you also feel like you have nowhere to go with those feelings: it’ll do no good to simply feel bad in the face of a problem as insurmountable as homelessness in San Francisco.

We can rightfully blame a lot of systemic failures for mass homelessness. HUD, Reagan. But as individuals, we can change things by changing our priorities. Basically I’m tired of those conversations. I’m tired of looking for who to blame, and I’m interested in who will help.

Before my time here, I remember thinking of homelessness as just another social issue, almost a fringe cause. “Homelessness” wasn’t the clickbait that got me. I was caught up in the newest, freshest social issues, how crazy Trump was getting and what the hell Rachel Dolezal was thinking. Homelessness didn’t appeal to me because it felt like a permanent problem, something I could never do anything about.

I see that people want to change things, and they want to have a part in it. Especially people with social, racial and economic privileges in San Francisco: they feel a heightening self-consciousness, and want somewhere to go with it.

Right now, I mostly see this expressed in discussions about how movie casting responds to race, or how not enough women are CEOs of the corporations we don’t even like. These are all valid observations, and legitimate reflections of larger systemic patterns of marginalization, and they all deserve a conversation. However, I feel the need to say those talks do not on their own qualify as effective political action. Our Team Members don’t give a shit about those discussions. The truth is I care more about that than they do, and it’s because I have the luxury of thinking that far removed and symbolically about “the system.” Anyone having a conversation about movie casting is doing so from a place of privilege (myself one thousand percent included) and that type of discourse is very different than action.

What would happen if instead of only divulging in symbolic conversations about race or gender when it has to do with HBO’s Girls, we actually all mustered up the courage to spend the same amount of energy looking at homelessness, epidemical drug abuse, and mass incarceration? What if conversations about homelessness became as common in your Twitter feed as intricate discussions about the new Ghostbusters? Again, let those Tweets flow, but please realize the homeless individuals we work with will not thank you for it. They’re too occupied trying to renew their shelter bed, figuring out where they’ll get their next meal, making sure they have tampons when they need them, and deciding if they can risk going to sleep that night without getting their stuff stolen.

Say we do immerse ourselves in those realities. Say we weren’t satisfied with only discourse and decided to spend some time in real life tackling reality. Right now we’re dipping our toe in, but we won’t take a step.

What if we all take a leap of faith that it would be worth it, because if we truly commit ourselves to change things as large and all-encompassing as homelessness, the rest will follow. If we pick people up out of the cracks in the system that leave them without homes and means to sustain themselves, marginalization in entertainment, employment, and everywhere else will begin to correct itself. 

It can start with you in your city, on your daily commute. If you’re not happy with the human strife you see everyday, make it a priority. You don’t have to quit your job and work for DST, but you can devote your time to funnel resources to organizations tackling the realities you care about. No one has to be just one thing in life: just because you’re a tech employee doesn’t mean you can’t also organize events or fundraisers to raise money for organizations doing the work. It doesn’t mean you can’t make demands from your representatives to prioritize homelessness as a policy issue, along with affordable housing and income inequality generally. If that all feels weird and out of your depth, I recommend talking to some of your community members who are living on the street.

Seriously. Say hi. Stop for a minute on your way home. Ask them what they think about things, ask them how they feel about their city, because hint: more than 70% of unhoused individuals in SF are from here, and they probably know more about the City than most of your fellow commuters. Hold community meals inviting the folks you see staying outside your home or work every day to come eat. Don’t be scared. It’s not worth being scared.

Seriously, respond. If you don’t like seeing homelessness everyday, respond to it everyday. Don’t go home from work, win a Facebook comment war, go to bed, wake up and walk by the same homeless people you saw yesterday and not respond. That person doesn’t know you just raked a racist over the coals on the internet. You didn’t help them at all. Go ahead, have the Facebook talks, but then do the real life walk.

Homelessness is becoming a cultural centerpiece in San Francisco. It’s undeniable now, by nature of its intense visibility and ever-encroaching presence in our communities. Instead of letting it creep into our consciousness as that big problem that will never go away and letting “homelessness is really bad there” become San Francisco’s narrative, why don’t we take it upon ourselves to be the San Francisco that took control of its homelessness problem, something we all have a role in. We can be the city that came together across all social strata and industries and started demanding responses. Let’s do this World War II manufacturing style, and get behind a common goal we can all reasonably agree on: get human beings out of the elements and into lives of stability so they can fully develop themselves the way so many of us have been lucky enough to do.

San Francisco is home to the richest history, world-changing innovations, and the smartest, most conscious and action-oriented humans in the world. If we let ourselves take on this fight, if we make the fight for a human’s right to a life out of poverty part of San Francisco’s culture, with signature policymakers and well-backed agencies to represent that, we can solve the human crisis pervading all our lives.

If it can happen anywhere, it’s San Francisco.

LinkedIn Interns Say ‘Hi’ and Raise 10,000 to End Homelessness

In late March 2016, Downtown Streets Team launched its work experience model for unhoused community members in San Francisco, a city that we know and love for its diverse, creative, and charmingly gritty culture. Three months after our launch, we were thrilled to have the attention of the largest employment oriented social networking company in the world, LinkedIn.

Working with LinkedIn’s Interns for Good was a no-brainer for us. In fact, we’re humbled to admit that Downtown Streets Team attempted to make our own employment-oriented social networking site a few years back. Yeah, that failed. Not just because we’re social workers making a poor attempt at engineering, but because access to technology has drastically improved for the unhoused community enough to make LinkedIn a viable resource for folks living on the streets. There couldn’t be a more exciting time to launch our non-profit in one of the most innovative and tech-savvy cities in the world.

San Franciscans know life isn’t golden for everyone in the City. Everyday we’re faced with over 8,000 people experiencing homelessness, and while the problem at large is so visible, the individuals themselves seem to blend together. It takes a conscious effort to remind ourselves the folks we see struggling are people, not just “the homeless,” and that everyone has a different path that led them to the street.

In consultations with our Team Members, we asked them what the most distressing aspect of homelessness is. Their responses were not as you might expect, the lack of adequate shelter, food or a sense of safety. We were told that the most difficult part of homelessness is the lack of acknowledgement from other people. This led to San Francisco Downtown Streets Team’s Just Say Hi campaign.

LinkedIn’s Interns for a Cause took our concept and ran with it. They demonstrated an impassioned and thorough understanding of our goal to end social hesitation around acknowledging homeless community members. People want to help end homelessness, but they don’t know how. Everyone can start by simply saying hi. The interns did exactly they: they saw our Team Members (homeless community members) cleaning the street, and asked who they were.

From that first interaction, the interns designed a program where coworkers could send a simple hello to a fellow employee accompanied with a message and a treat in return for making a donation. More than 300 employees participated, raising $2,755 for us! This program was a proof of concept for us: when asked to be thoughtful and reach out to someone, employees were inclined to take action and make a connection. Once someone received a Just Say Hi message, they were inspired to send one themselves. It was even worth a donation on their part. You can’t put a price on human connection, and this program proved that positivity breeds positivity. This is something we’ve seen in our work as well: when you start treating someone with dignity, they will rise to the occasion. The interns’ Just Say Hi message program proved positive attention yields real results.

With continued organized efforts, the LinkedIn interns in partnership with the LinkedIn for Good team raised over $10,000 for our San Francisco Team. Given the success of the campaign, we hope to replicate it across our organization.

With this funding, we can grow our Team and provide more services to more people. Our San Francisco Team is the fastest growing of the seven branches DST has established across the Bay Area. In the past six months, we have helped 22 individuals find permanent employment, and another 16 find temporary employment. For many of our folks, this was a huge step. Having not worked for years, many Team Members at first don’t have confidence they could return to work. However, after a weekend gig cleaning up after Outside Lands and San Francisco Pride, they realized they do have what it takes to get a job, and began putting out applications and setting-up a LinkedIn profile.

When the LinkedIn Interns saw our Team and reached out to just say hi, we had no idea where it would lead. Here we are, together taking steps towards ending homelessness one person, one human connection and one job at a time.

VOL IX – Gregory Mills, San Francisco Graduate

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Hi, I’m Gregory Mills…

Can we do it like Paul Harvey? I just think it sounds more dramatic…

February 23 1977, I joined the Airforce with a six month old child. I was looking for something better career-wise, instead of being a janitor, my pride was too strong. I started as a mechanic, worked there for 18 years. Met some great friends. One of my friends there was Jaqueline’s Bouvier Kennedy’s cousins. We got stationed in Denver together, and we ate all of the hamburgers in the city. I lived in Korea for three years, great shopping if you get a chance. It was okay, but I was a family man. I was sitting there, thinking about how I was missing home. I was trying to do my time, I was counting every day, ready to go back home.

I met my best friend in the world, he was from Harlem. He brought this creativity out of me. I was kinda closed in, and he was kinda awkward, but we were goofing around and we started writing on people’s door. We had fun at night, we would go downtown to party, drink, laugh, and right before we would go in the base he would tap me on the shoulder and said “ I gotta go” and this man would disappear into the darkness.

I made a lot of friends, I wish I kept in contact. Sometimes I happen to see one or two of them in the Tenderloin. Keep in mind this is not a place I wanted to end up, but then you get the feeling, “Okay, I’m not the only one to get down this road.” 

I retired early from the Airforce, I felt I was the missing entity in my Black family. There was a need for a Black male to keep some control in the community. So I moved back to SF, in Visitation Valley. When I got home, I represented this authority that my wife and kid did not want anymore… it caused a lot of problems.

One day my son tried to kill me. I had a 25th year anniversary Mustang. My son stole my car. I tried to discipline him. And then he stole it again.

I went back home to my mother’s house; it was like God intervened and put me back in my mom’s presence. I would listen to her stories, learn different things I did not know about her. Learn some cooking skills. At times, I questioned whether she loved me, but of course, she always did.

I remember the day I left for Korea, she said, “You want me to come to the airport with you?” Then it hit me. She started crying, and I thought, “I’ve never been this far away from you in my life.” I’ve been called a mama’s boy by so many girlfriends. She was everything to me. I learned a long time ago what loneliness is — and I know what being alone is, and it’s not the same.

My mother was my anchor. When my mom passed away, I started to feel like a ship without an anchor. It’s easy to burry your feelings in drugs. I think I was trying to kill myself. I started smoking crack. I was kinda like a soft smoker, I never stole from nobody. I was smoking but I was confused. I did not know what I was doing. One day, it seemed like I was on the verge of dying and I promised God I would not do it no more.

I ran into this lady who saw something in me, and helped me out. She would not allow anyone in my circle, so I couldn’t get out of it.

I worked for the Internal Revenue Service at the time. I did make it to work everyday, for eight hours a day. I was about to be hired for a permanent job, but then they brought up that I was ex-military and that I had a lot of guns, and they got paranoid. They did a warrant check and they found a firearm in my briefcase and some marijuana. It was a registered gun and I did not want to leave it at home at home, cause my niece was staying there. I got arrested for the night. I spent the night in jail, and when I went in front of the judge, he saw I was a good man, and he released me.

I had a two-year probation and had to stay in a special house. I was also supposed to stay away from drugs, and they put me in this area where I had to pass hundreds of people taking drugs on a daily basis. That was an everyday battle. All of the evil, I ended up right in the midst of it. Crack dealers everywhere. No matter how hard you try, you are always going to remember that drug, cause it can pull you right back into it.

But I managed to stay off. I got off probation. I don’t have any problem with the police. But I have a problem when they just call me, “Hey come here…” because I’m Black. With my military background, it feels unfair. I put my ass on the line, and the cops just have their jobs and act like they are heroes. I even had to file a complaint against an officer who harassed me. I’m a veteran, I don’t appreciate being talked to like that.

Calvin is one of my oldest friends. I saw him one day on the street, he was hustling, and he told me about the Downtown Streets team. I looked into it, did the process, signed up. Then I got accepted to the Team. I had to clean up stuff, picking up needles, trash, next to people who are using needles. It was hard. 

Fortunately, through the Street Team, there are three other guys that I’m friends with. We support each other, look after each other. All of this is due to DST. I’m a great person, but I don’t always let it show. Me and these guys are so close. One of the guys just got a permanent job, and we were so happy for him. I’m not his father, but to see his smile, it’s priceless.

Then the need to work came, for my pride, to feel busy, and to make ends meet. A father does not like to see his family fall apart. My daughter started having medical problems, and that’s what put me back to work. She is like me, but she is tougher, smarter, harder, but she is me. Sometimes you don’t like to fail in front of yourself. My daughter does not want to see me fail. I was working for this car company. Now I live in a brand new senior building, an old Coca Cola factory. I have a glow to me now because I’m not homeless anymore.

 

 

 

 

SanJoseInside – Op-Ed: Vote ‘Yes’ on A for Affordable Housing

This op-ed piece was originally published by SanJoseInside.com; written by Eileen Richardson/September 13, 2016

Measure A would authorize Santa Clara County to spend $950 million on affordable housing for the homeless and other vulnerable residents. (Photo via Facebook)

Measure A would authorize Santa Clara County to spend $950 million on affordable housing for the homeless and other vulnerable residents. (Photo via Facebook)

This November, Santa Clara County voters will have the opportunity to make history by voting “yes” on Measure A for Affordable Housing, a $950 million affordable housing bond that will create thousands of new affordable homes for hardworking families and vulnerable communities across Santa Clara County.

We all see on a daily basis that Santa Clara County’s housing crisis is real. The Bay Area is home to some of the wealthiest and most expensive places to live in the world, all while thousands of people are homeless and many thousands more live below the poverty line on the verge of homelessness.

This affects all of us. We’re worried about our friends, family, and community members being able to find an affordable place to live. And we’re deeply concerned about helping those who have already lost housing find a way to get back on their feet and gain access to a safe, healthy, affordable place to call home. Read more…

Vol. VIII Eileen Richardson, CEO

 

Looking back, I’m embarrassed at my naivety. I raised two kids as a single mom, all the while climbing my way up the corporate ladder. I became a successful Venture Capitalist, and then took the helm as CEO of Napster and another high-tech startup. After that, I thought solving homelessness would be a breeze. Give me six months, I thought, and I’ll spread the model across the country and call it a day!

Well, it’s a decade later and I’m still at it, even if some days I’m ripping my hair out at how hard this work is. I have a bad day now if I hear someone has died on the street before we were able to reach them. But I’m still hopeful. I’m still optimistic that in my lifetime, or at least in my kids’ lifetime, there will be an end to homelessness in America.

Homelessness is more complex than any product or business plan could ever be. You see, when you have a product—no matter how complex—it’s still just a product. You work to get it to the place where you can worry about sales models and distribution channels, but the product remains stable and finite. When working with people, there is no solid, singular product and the trials and tribulations are infinite. It’s very personal.

I am excited to say that homelessness in Palo Alto is down nearly 40% since we started, despite average rent increasing from $1,695 in 2010 to $3,105 in 2015. Across Santa Clara County, the home of our first three Teams, homelessness is on the decline as well. In the last two years, homelessness is down 14% despite increases in most other Bay Area counties.

When the first four Team Members and I started with Downtown Streets Team (DST) in 2005, I was so green. I thought it couldn’t be that hard to find someone a job and housing if I just addressed the obvious roadblocks. I ran the Team the only way I knew how: like a high tech startup, rather than a social service—action-oriented versus service-oriented. We improvised, tried new ideas and constantly corrected our course. I learned so much from the Team Members and from the early successes we had.

Early lessons:

  • I found that if you hold people accountable and place trust in them, they rise to the occasion.
  • Everyone’s path into homelessness was unique. So how could a cookie-cutter approach to homelessness work for everyone, or even most people? it doesn’t.
  • The Team Member had to want the change for themselves, but we sure could motivate them!
  • Dignity is often looked at as a by-product of housing, employment, or success. I learned that if we started with dignity and used it as a tool instead of an end result, we were hugely more successful.

We gained a lot of traction early with this new approach. We forged partnerships with unlikely stakeholders, including local businesses and government agencies outside of Human Services. We even won recognition from Harvard University’s Ash Institute as one of the top 50 Innovations in American Government.

We earned attention quickly, and it’s carried us far. We’ve received transformational support from funders like the Peery Foundation, and made headway in communities across the nation. We launched franchises in Gilroy, CA and Florida, and then we got a call from San Jose Councilmember and now Mayor Sam Liccardo. The launch of our San Jose Team quickly followed in 2011, with Sunnyvale (2012) and San Rafael (2013) close behind.

All the while we were looking over the horizon at San Francisco. We watched as the status of homelessness escalated and rents kept increasing. When a few community members first approached us about a San Francisco Downtown Streets Team, we were excited.

But rapid early success has already proven that our award-winning model can work here too. In our first month alone, three Team Members transitioned to employment. We have a full staff of dedicated, passionate and innovative people forging a paradigm shift for the homeless community and our partners around Mid-Market. We’ve gained the support of the local business community, like the Civic Center Community Benefit District, the Union Square Business Improvement District ,and funding from Dolby Laboratories, Cisco and Google. Most importantly, our Team seems energized and hopeful.

DST will keep doing what it does best: creating a pathway for the hopeless to change their lives through the dignity of work, and acting as the gateway to other programs and changing the community’s perceptions of who a homeless person is, and what their aspirations are. And so importantly, making communities believe there is a solution and shattering their preconceived notions about what homeless men and women want and are capable of.

I don’t proclaim that DST can do this alone. Quite the opposite, actually. To end homelessness, we need to collaborate to increase our affordable housing stock. We need to engage folks at every possible point of entry. We need to bring more corporations and businesses into the fold. Yes, people need homes but almost of equal importance: they need to feel like a positive and contributing member of their community once again. Collectively, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

I always joke that if I’d known how hard it would be, I would have never taken that ‘six-month leap’ to begin this work. This has indeed been the hardest job I’ve ever had. But as of today, we’ve celebrated over 1,000 success stories!

So, a decade later and implementing our unique working model, we are ready for San Francisco – and mark my words – 10 years from now, we will be celebrating 10,000 people moved from our streets into lives of joy and independence.

 

 

VOL. VII – Rich Mongarro, Union Square Team

 

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By Rich Mongarro, Operations Director at Block by Block Union Square

We all have our stories, both good and bad. It can be hard not to judge each another. Those living on the street are judged and written off based on their physical appearance and apparent status in life before their beliefs, aspirations or character ever come into consideration. In my experience providing employment pipelines for homeless individuals, I have met machinists, stockbrokers, singers, carpenters, professional martial artists, you name it. They’ve come from different places and taken different paths, but ended up in the same place. A place where a simple t-shirt and a smile can literally change a life: Downtown Streets Team.

My partnership with DST began more than two years ago in San Jose. I remember the day as if it were yesterday. The company I work for, Block by Block, had just begun a collaborative program with the San Jose Downtown Association and Downtown Streets Team to provide supplemental street cleaning services in the downtown area. We branded the program for San Jose, calling it Groundwerx. We would be training and supervising eight homeless Team Members as they beautified the streets in exchange for gift cards for basic living needs.

I’ll admit, I had no idea what to expect from the program. I was skeptical in its ability to actually succeed in downtown San Jose the way the program had apparently succeeded in other communities across Santa Clara County.

At this point, I had served five years as Program Director of Groundwerx, downtown San Jose’s cleaning, safety and hospitality program. In that time, I gained an acute understanding of the landscape of homelessness in Santa Clara County and watched several programs come and go, with little or no effect in bringing noticeable relief to the homeless crisis that affected more than 7,500 members of the street population in the County.

The homeless were looked down on by their fellow community members as a nuisance, a problem that simply needed to go away. Yet there they were, sleeping night after night in whatever alcoves they could find, crafting makeshift shelters in doorways and public parks. Our staff would wake them up in the morning and many would disappear for the day, only to return later that evening and sleep until dawn. I saw very little success in watching these individuals get out of the routine they were now a part of. They didn’t have alternatives, any ways to break the pattern of homelessness in their own lives. During these five years I think I saw more people die on the streets than were housed.

So as I walked into the community center hall one warm July afternoon, I wasn’t expecting a lot. However, upon stepping through the door, two things instantly struck me: the first was the sheer number of people who were here to take part in the meeting. There was upwards of 70 to 80 people there, some in brightly colored DST shirts of yellow, green or blue. The others were wearing everyday street clothes; I came to learn these were the folks who were on the waitlist to get into the program. As the meeting got started, I felt a strong sense of excitement and empowerment. The individuals at this meeting were allowed to speak up and say what was on their minds with no one judging them or ignoring what they wanted to convey. It’s not often that homeless people are invited indoors to be a part of a conversation, to be celebrated for their small successes. Here, they all had purpose. They all had a voice.

As time went on after that meeting, I got to know Team Members on a more personal level. Every morning I’d come to work, I’d see our DST cleaners smiling while they worked. It was apparent they were not only enjoying the contribution they were making to the district, but appreciating the recognition they received, especially when they were thanked by the very same individuals who had once only seen them as a blight on the streets, and wanted them to just go away. They were part of the community once more and felt a sense of belonging that many had not felt for quite some time.

I spoke with them and learned their stories, all of the good and all the bad.  Over time some would leave the program for their own reasons, but most of them stayed, and I’m happy to say I was able to bring on many Team Members as full-time paid employees with Block by Block. And for every employee I hired, I wanted to do a little something special to bring special attention to their success.

At that first Weekly Success Meeting I went to, I was impressed by the way new Team Members were welcomed onto the Team. When a person accepted a position with the Team, they’d be summoned to the front of the room with a drumroll and presented with their yellow shirt to thunderous applause from the attendees and staff. The smile on the faces of those folks was priceless. So when it came time to hire one of the DST Team Members to my company, I knew how I wanted to make it happen. I went to the next DST meeting, called up the individual and presented them their new uniform and welcomed them to Block by Block. Tears were often shed, accompanied by smiles and supportive applause from the DST staff as well as their fellow Team Members. I genuinely felt like I was changing people’s lives, and there is no greater feeling in the world than that.

In December 2015, I left the Groudwerx program in San Jose, and transferred up to my hometown of San Francisco to take over a new program in Union Square. Before I left San Jose, I was given a framed t-shirt, signed by DST staff and Team Members that I had worked with. I have received several awards in my career, but never one that meant more to me than that shirt. I took it with me to my new office in San Francisco, where it hangs proudly on the wall. Once I was here in Union Square I knew I had the opportunity to do something special again, and help bring Downtown Streets Team to the streets of San Francisco.

I’m thrilled to say that with the incredible leadership group at DST of Eileen Richardson, Chris Richardson and Brandon Davis, just last week we officially launched a similar program here in Union Square, one of the highest-visited tourist destinations in the entire city. When I handed our new Union Square Team Members their first shirts (a custom vibrant red for the Union Square District) a familiar sense of fulfillment came over me. I had been a part of something special in San Jose, and now we’ve brought that same magic to San Francisco. 

After two months here, I’ve been able to hire three Team Members, and I’ve continued the tradition of giving out their uniforms in front of their peers. I proudly presented a Block by Block uniform to Sam at last week’s meeting, and I’m excited to present that bright red vest to Moses at this week’s meeting. I hope that small act brings a sense of reality to all the Team Members in that room, hopefully that anything is possible for them. I hope that when they watch their fellow Team Members reach their goals, they feel like they can reach their own.

VOL. VI – Angelique Diaz, Case Manager

By Angelique Diaz, San Francisco Case Manager

I am continuously asked, “What is case management?” If ya ask me, it means being a housing counselor, personal assistant, liaison, scheduler, cooking instructor, house cleaner, mold inspector, mover, driver, legal advocate, and alarm clock.

I grew up in Brownsville, a small city in South Texas, and although it was a poor border town, homelessness was rarely seen. Growing up, I didn’t even know homelessness existed. Now I speak as someone who has been in the nonprofit world working with the unhoused and low-income community for 10 years, which is my entire adult life.

I fell into this field. I just knew I wanted a job that would make my family proud. My father was a disabled Marine Corp veteran, so when I was offered a position at a transitional housing facility for homeless veterans in Phoenix, I thought it was fate.

Before coming to DST, I worked at large well-known non-profits in multiple states. Lots of programs felt “cookie-cutter,” with staff that worked in a “one program fits all” mindset. We were bound up in a lot of red tape, and it felt like the main focus was on what we were NOT allowed to do, instead of focusing on what action we could take to help people.

I remember the first Downtown Streets Team (DST) meeting I attended. At the time, I was working with dual-diagnosed homeless veterans in San Jose, I did presentations to agencies and recruitment with veterans in homeless encampments. I was directed to present at a DST weekly Success Meeting in San Jose. I imagined I’d give a presentation and leave.

On a warm sunny Wednesday, promptly at 12:30 p.m., I arrived at a musty church basement where DST held their weekly success meetings. Although the basement room had minimal light, I could feel the sunshine of DST radiating from the room. It was such a supportive environment with endless cheering, compassion, and most of all the clapping. Never have I ever seen a social service organization that had so much clapping. The roomful of smiles was so contagious, I could not help but feel uplifted, and I decided to stay for the whole meeting. When I went back to my office cubicle I immediately felt depressed and envious, because it was no DST. Throughout the months that followed, I could not stop thinking about the joy in that room.

It was just my luck that when I was ready to leave my job, a position opened up with DST. In my interview, our CEO and Executive Director Eileen Richardson looked at my resume and told me I was “institutionalized”.

Institutionalized. What the hell does that even mean?

Later, I would come to know what she meant. At DST, we welcome everyone onto the team, for there is only one requirement to be at least 18 years old. We dedicate our time to listening to people’s stories and most of all, we celebrate all successes big or small, which is something that rarely happened at the other non-profits I worked for.

It’s been almost three years since that interview. My first position with DST was working in Santa Clara County on a homeless encampment project. There, we partnered with the City of San Jose to house over 80 individuals and we convinced landlords and property owners to take a chance on our folks. The project’s high housing retention rate blew the national average out of the water.

Now I work as a case manager in San Francisco, which has been incredibly frustrating and disheartening at times. Currently, the wait time for a shelter bed in San Francisco is five weeks. Affordable housing waitlists range from two to five years. Housing is scarce and unaffordable; lists are long, housing lotteries are few and far between. It feels like everyday my Team Members tell me horror stories about uncooperative service providers and never-ending waitlists.

But as I continue to chug along, establishing relationships with property managers, homeowners, and other nonprofits to seek out affordable permanent housing in the Golden City, I try not to let our Team Members become discouraged because their number hasn’t appeared on a shelter or permanent housing waitlist. Instead I focus on the things that I can help with: sometimes it’s getting them an ID, a pair of glasses, dentures, or helping squash an active arrest warrant that can hinder their efforts to gain employment and housing. Because as my Team Members’ case manager, I cannot let them down.

Looking back at the first Team Member I housed, he once had his own place where he was living on a fixed income. Then his wallet was stolen. Without his bank card, he couldn’t pay rent on time, and his property manager wouldn’t accept his past due rent. He was evicted and lived on the streets for nine months. He joined DST in March 2016, and we immediately started our mission to rebuild his life. His housing was tied to receiving General Assistance fixed income, but when his housing was ready, his General Assistance was cut off. I called two different times and spoke to people at the GA office, asking them to reinstate his benefits, and they said no. I called a third time, and they told me that he would need to re-apply and wait 30 days. I asked for an exception, and they said no. Finally, with my Team Member by my side, I marched down to the GA office in person and demanded they reinstate his GA immediately so he wouldn’t miss this rare housing opportunity, and they finally helped us. The Team Member was understandably discouraged and hopeless throughout the process. Without our help, he would have had to wait who knows how long for his benefits to be re-instated and for another housing opportunity to come up.

We do everything possible to go above and beyond to advocate for Team Members and connect them to services. We’ve helped get ID-less Team Members on a plane to Los Angeles for job orientation. We’ve helped Team Members get housing when nobody else believed it could happen. These moments are what make everything worthwhile, when hope is found in what seems to be a hopeless situation. We support our Team Members’ efforts, and meet them where they are. Rather than studying statistics on paper, we look at and speak to the individual in front of us.

I am no longer envious of that marvelous day when I attended my first DST meeting because now, every Tuesday at 12:30 p.m., in a bright room full of optimism, smiles and a great deal of clapping, San Francisco holds OUR Success Meetings, where I get to share my housing resources, community events, and a very popular Free Things to Do list with my Team Members every week… and I know I can say I am no longer “institutionalized.”

 

 

 

VOL. V – LGBTQ and Homeless By Lisa, Team Lead

This story originally appeared on Stories Behind the Fog.

I was born in Chicago. I don’t really know much about it, because I was very young when we moved to Colorado. I grew up mainly in Denver; then a small town called Slight. I’ve always been good with children. After I graduated high school, I started taking childcare classes. I have something of a gift with kids. I’ve always gotten along with them, cared for them. They’re really special to me.

After my classes, I started working as a nanny in New Jersey. I worked there for two years. I alys referred the smaller setting of nannying, and it was really something. I got to travel allover with my families. I went to China, Cancun, Yosemite. One family took me on a cruise with them. I’m really thankful for those times. I traveled with one family for three months; that was really fun.

I would have kept doing what I was doing, I was doing good, but two years ago my brother asked me to move to Vacaville and help him take care of my nieces. I agreed, and moved from New Jersey to California. Things were going alright, but his wife and I never really connected, and she kicked me out.

I didn’t know anybody in California. My brother couldn’t do much, and the rest of my family was gone or turned me away. I didn’t have anywhere to go. That’s when I got into my first shelter, in Vacaville.

This place was hard. You had to do a lot: We had to do community service, take classes, and find a job in 30 days. It was a lot of pressure for me. I didn’t know yet then, but I have PTSD from my childhood and later, my mother dying. She died twelve years ago from a brain tumor, and I took care of her in the end. It was really hard for me to watch her die. I was living with my girlfriend, who left because of it. She couldn’t deal with the situation. I couldn’t leave though, I felt like my mom needed me. I couldn’t give up on her.

I’d have outbursts at the shelter and couldn’t do anything. I didn’t know why, so I just called it ugly. And it was ugly. I just wanted to get rid of it, but I didn’t know how. All I knew is that I wouldn’t get rid of it in this shelter.

I decided to take the money I made from my job — they made us save 90% of what we earned — and leave. I made a plan. I took the money I made and got a hotel. My plan was to stay there until I ran out and after I would take a bunch of pills. Fortunately, I am still here.

I was in the emergency room for three days. It was hard, because I didn’t have nobody there. After they released me, I went to a mental hospital then another homeless program in Vacaville. They were trying to help me with housing and work, but it wasn’t helping. For me, if I’m not connected with something, then I don’t feel like there’s nothing to live for. I needed something to belong to. 

I’m a lesbian. I wanted to connect with that community to get back that part of me. I found a shelter in San Francisco, Jazzies. They’re the only shelter in the city for LGBTQ people, which is crazy. I wasn’t sure if I’d even get a bed, but I had to take a chance. I felt like my life depended on it.

I got in in February, but it wasn’t what I hoped. There’s not really any privacy, and the bathrooms are horrible. Men have come in and ripped the shower curtain open when I was taking a shower. It triggers my PTSD; it feels like the whole world comes crashing down on me. I’m trying to get the staff to fix it, because a lot of people don’t feel safe. I sometimes can’t shower for days because of it.

Luckily, though, I met Samantha living at the shelter. She told me about the Downtown Street Team. They work around Civic Center cleaning up trash and helping the homeless there. They hand out hygiene kits and other supplies, and you know, just give them someone to talk to.

I started volunteering with them. It’s really helped. I was the “participant of the week” the first week I was there, and they made me a team leader the in the first month. It helps me stay connected. It helps give me a purpose. It helps keep me alive.

I’m happy to say that, it’s been months of try, but on Monday I’m going to see a therapist. I’m hopeful that I can start to figure it all out, but I know that’ll take a while. My goal basically is go back to the nannying and be more like living in, but mentally I just wanna feel better.

There’s a lot of prejudice against the homeless. People treat us badly every day. Even though I’ve been able to get into the system, so thank God for that, it’s not easy. We can’t be at the shelter during the day. I try to find places to stay then, but you always end up getting kicked out. Nobody really looks at us, or cares. But we’re people. We’re good people. I am a good hearted person. One day, I want to open another LGBTQ shelter. I want to give more people like me something to be connected to. I want to help save lives like the Downtown Street Team helped save mine.

 

Thank you to Free Range Puppies. 

VOL IV – Jaclyn Epter, Employment Specialist

By Jaclyn Epter

Most people are excited about their birthdays. At Downtown Streets Team (DST), we honor our Team Members’ birthdays, but some responses I’ve heard perfectly highlight how life-altering homelessness can be:

“I haven’t celebrated my birthday for years,” one Team Member told me. “I’m just trying to get through the day.” Another Team Member, upon being offered a leftover slice of cake, declined. “I just don’t have anywhere to keep it.”

In my role as Employment Specialist with Downtown Streets Team in San Francisco, I work with people each day to identify and remove the barriers they face in pursuit of employment. Sometimes this means providing interview practice and resume support, but other times a Team Member just needs some consistent encouragement along the way.

Homelessness itself is a barrier, but access to consistent income is the only way we can move a person into permanent housing. We begin our work with that long-term goal in mind.

I started doing this kind of work in middle school, I just didn’t realize it. I was fortunate enough to have a mother very committed to volunteer work, and by the age of 13 I was volunteering at a thrift store that raised money for a women’s shelter serving victims displaced by domestic violence. I didn’t even know what domestic violence was. I was fortunate in that way as well. But I could tell that I was working with a staff that was not satisfied with the status quo, and together we were able to fund a vital resource for our community.

In college I chose to study Sociology and Social Work, with a concentration in inequality. We were a group of people who had never experienced much hardship, seeking to solve social problems by reading about them. Many students came into class with naïve questions: “Why don’t people go to college?” “How do people end up homeless?” Our patient professors had to do the tedious labor that it often takes to open minds to alternate life experiences. In most academia, the individual is reduced to the “problem” they represent. People are shuffled into demographics and published as a percentage.

I was in my last year of undergrad when I met Eileen Smith. My friend and I were looking into abandoned buildings in our neighborhood, and we stumbled upon a 68-year-old woman living inside with no running water or electricity. I ended up visiting her on my own periodically. I would bring her food from the restaurant I worked at and she would read my astrological chart. We became close and I became intimately aware of the lifetime of obstacles she’d overcome to survive. She set the goal to pursue social security benefits on her own, and eventually, she reconnected with a sibling that offered her housing.

Eileen showed me that people are truly capable of changing their own circumstances, if and only if they have consistent support and exposure to alternate pathways. Social justice is not theory and thinkpieces, it comes from hard work on the ground, face to face with the people who represent “problems.”

Our Team Members live everyday life on the streets like an obstacle course. Homelessness strips a person of their individuality, their psychological and physical safety, and their capacity for resiliency. Many people come into our program with little hope their situations will ever change.

But each morning, most likely just before the cops do their sweeps, something drives our Team Members to put on their Downtown Streets Team shirts and come to their shift. They travel from all over San Francisco in an effort to pursue new options and opportunities.

People ask me what keeps our Team Members coming back. We hear it over and over again from our Team: we provide a refuge from the streets, a space where people are seen as the individuals they are. You are not a case number with us, you are Linda, turning 40 today, and we heard you like funfetti cupcakes.

That homeless woman is someone’s mother

The little girl who drew this is about 10 years old. She approached our table at a community event where she immediately grabbed this question and a colored pencil. There were many questions on the table to choose from. As she began to draw, it became apparent what was weighing on her mind.

She was also accompanied by her younger sister and her grandmother, who is now raising the two of them.

Her grandmother spoke to us about her daughter’s struggles to get her life on track, to stay housed and employed. She was at a loss for answers, for her daughter has made many attempts but is continuously faced with adversity, including a recent divorce. The little girl interjected her comments as her grandmother spoke. We were surprised by her matter-of-fact tone. She was immensely focused on completing her drawing, but also wanted to share the facts with us.

We gave the grandmother info about one of our teams that we hope will fit the needs of her daughter. The girl’s younger sister tugged at her grandmother’s sleeve, demanding she was ready to go home.

“She’s autistic,” said the grandmother. “So there’s a lot going on.”

Even so, they did not leave until the little girl was done with her drawing. We talked with many people at the community fair that day, but none of them shared with us in the way this little girl had. In a split second, she forced us to see how her struggling mother was affecting her and her family. We, in turn, were struck by the reality that hit us. We talk to people every day who are homeless, but not often do we hear it from a child’s perspective.

When we talk about homelessness, we need to talk about all aspects. Homelessness impacts us all and it will take all of us working together to solve it. The next time you see a homeless person on the street, think to yourself, “That could be someone’s mother, or someone’s brother, or uncle.” Then do something, even if it’s simply looking them in the eyes and saying, “Hi.”