Month: August 2016

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.”

VOL III: Annette Visor, San Francisco Team Member

By Annette Visor (photo courtesy of medium.com)

This article first appeared on medium.com.

I went to live in Houston, Texas in June, 1977, and I stayed four years and came back to San Francisco. I went there to get my life established because my son was young and I wanted to make a future for him. I used to work at a convalescent home taking care of elderly people.

I came back to San Francisco to see about my mom. She was living door to door and I put her in my house until she got on her feet. Now she has her own house. I helped her apply for apartments, because she had a 6th or 7th grade education — she’s smart but she can’t read too well.

I moved to the Chinatown Projects, and I stayed there for nine years. Then I moved to Oakland because I had a nervous breakdown because I had a friend who was in jail. I moved out of my place because I couldn’t handle it, and I moved to 98th St in Oakland. Then I moved to 61st Avenue, and then to Fruitvale with my play-niece. I still talk to her today; she says I’ll always have a place with her. After that, I got tired of living with people so I moved to the shelter for two years. That’s where I’m at now.

I wanted to get myself together, because I’m not a person who doesn’t care about life. I moved there so I can get on my feet and be happier. And I wanted to give the people who live at the shelter hope, and show them strength. They’re so proud of me now. I go visit them still.

I moved so much because I wanted to be in a spot where I’m comfortable. I want to have a bigger place so I can have my grandbabies visit me. I want to have a place where my family can come visit me.

My son got married and he has a four-year-old who loves the heck out of me. His name is Perry. I’m going to take him to the pancake house tomorrow over in Serramonte Shopping Center. I want to spend time with him and be a part of his life. His mom works, my son works, so I want to spend time with him over the summer. I’ve got to watch his back, though, because you know how kids run.

My mom sleeps a lot. I want to be with my mom, too, and that hurts my heart a lot. My sister says let her rest. We used to kick it together but we don’t do that no more. At least I get to talk to her on the phone, but I like to eat with her and talk about how we’re doing and stuff.

My whole family is here too. I lost my baby brother, and my sister just two months ago. One was a lifeguard, and he drowned. I’ve lost a lot of my family but you’ve got to be strong. They’re looking at you from Heaven, so.

I moved into the Projects on Eddy St when I was 16 years old, two years after my son was born. I was doing a lot of struggling. I was young, but my baby never got taken from me. He’s 39 years old now. He works at a partnership, helping singles and people with families get places to live, and he’s doing great. He helps shelter and feed them. I’ve told him be your own follower; be your own leader. And now he sees what I’m talking about. You keep that job!

The people who are getting up in the morning and always looking for a better future: they should have more attention paid to them, because they’re looking for something. You get to a certain age, you need to see something happy. You need something better. I want to help the people who don’t know how to help themselves, too. It’s good to have good leadership.

The guy I’m working with now, he says he’s going to adopt us a park. I hope it’ll be somewhere we like, like Dolores Park. I used to live over there.

I like to adventure! I like to explore, and to go places.

If you give people a way to help themselves without being stressed or pushed — because they already have a lot of anxiety in them; they’ve been through a lot — they will help themselves. You’ve got to help them so they can do it. I would like to see the ladies in my neighborhood do something with themselves because they’re beautiful. I think they’re really beautiful. But they need a push.

There are so many empty apartments. They’re not filled with the people who are doing something for themselves. It could be their foundation to grow. Instead they’re filled with people who are just going to be there for a couple of months, or washed out in a couple of weeks. That’s what I’ve been seeing. They don’t fill them with the people who want to keep it going on, who want to be paying rent.

I think they should go to the shelters and ask who really wants to pay rent, and who really wants to stay. People really want to help you. If you take a step in front of you, you’ll have one behind you. I see a lot of people in those shelters who have potential and they make them wait. I had to complain and complain before they started helping me. My money went so fast when I was in the shelter. I used to have to call my family and get them to bring me food. My son, bless him, brought me some food the other day. It’s so expensive out here.

Whatever I do, I want to be happy and have a smile on my face. I want to make sure I smile and be happy. When you wake up in the morning, it’s not so happy. But me? I want to be happy. I like helping people, and I’ve been like that all my life.

I study math, social studies, art and computers at Five Keyes. I just did a reading test, and went from 1.1 to 5.5. On my math test, I went from 3.0 to 4.4. I’ve still got all my grades! I gave Brandon, the supervisor at Downtown Streets Team, one of my cubic art pieces. He says it looks good, you should come and see it! I said, I know it does!

I miss my teacher at Five Keys. She taught me so much. She brought so much art out of me that I didn’t even know I could do. I want a studio where I can put all my art, and I want to have a little art gallery. I want to be able to pay the rent on it. I don’t care what it is: even if it’s $200 or $300 a month, I want it. I’ve had this dream since I was 17. I want to start again, and I want to be famous in my art.

My sister, Angel, is still on my mind, and I can’t let it go. Every day I feel like crying but I don’t let it out. I hope God will come to me and tell me it’s going to be alright. She’s in Heaven and I love her. I miss my baby brother Rocky, too. I hope my mom gets stronger so we can kick it and go places. Have a fish fry or something.

I’ve got a sister called Peaches who lives in the Valencia Projects. I miss her and I want to spend time with her. She’s still grieving over my sister Angel. I want to get together with my whole family and have a reunion. That will probably make it better too. On my dad’s side, in Midway, Texas, we always used to have family reunions, but since my dad passed away I haven’t been there.

I feel like this is the time to do something. My head used to be like a freeway, with thoughts going this way and that, and now it’s not like that. So this is the time to do something. If I don’t do it, it’s not going to happen.

 

VOL. II – Brandon Davis, SF Project Director

By Brandon Davis, Project Director  of San Francisco

In a letter from Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King declared that…

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through tireless efforts…and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.

Every Tuesday at 12:30 pm, in a modest Quaker Meeting Space, there’s a room brimming with the positive energy of homeless community members who have rejected inevitability, united in eagerness for self-transformation. Since Downtown Streets Team launched in San Francisco three months ago, we’ve had no shortage of folks determined to earn a life of stability, starting by volunteering on community beautification projects and working side by side with our direct service staff on their housing and employment goals. In fact, San Francisco is home to our quickest growing Team, built solely through peer-to-peer outreach and a high-spirited presence in the community.

It doesn’t take a Medical Social Worker to discern that my compassion for the unhoused community is deeply rooted in personal experience. As a first generation child of deaf adults (CODA) I experienced the marginalization of a community and felt its effects on my family. Through watching families in the deaf community struggle to find support, my empathy for others in similarly alienating circumstances has grown. My parents’ disability disqualified them for a majority of employment opportunities, dealing them major economical disadvantages. The social disadvantage of deafness often excluded our family from teacher conferences and medical appointments, which potentially negatively affected our health and well being. I’ve seen how being “othered” can turn marginalized communities even more inward and isolated into groups of only those who share their experiences.

Adversity has shaped our way of identifying with the world and those around us. One of the largest controversies within the deaf community is whether or not parents should procure operations to restore a deaf child’s hearing. The dispute stems from a deeply rooted pride that members of the deaf community hold in being subversive, and surviving the world without assimilating and developing strong culture in the face of marginalization. The same controversy transpires around adults who opt for progressive surgery after a lifetime of living in deaf subculture.

That might come as a surprise to most people. But while both hearing and housing might appear as objective, undeniable advantages to most, assimilating after a lifetime without them has to be some real earth-shattering shit.

Provided the offer to hear, for instance, my father would be offended. On the other hand, my mother who was born hard of hearing was recently giggling to me about testing a newly-released hearing device in a public restroom, asking me “is that what it’s always sounded like in there?”

I don’t blame my father. He carved out a life with what he had and learned to cope with the support of his community. Perhaps their difference in approach to assimilation can be traced back to the way their parents handled their deafness: my mother was taken to Northwestern University multiple times a week to participate in studies that trained her to interpret speech in the hearing world, completely opposite my father, who was shipped to a boarding school for the deaf at age five, where he spent most of his life until he was an adult.

Deaf adults qualify for disability benefits that pay a fixed income. My dad would never vilify someone who used those benefits in a time of need, but he made the decision to work and gained a strong sense of self-worth rooted in the contribution he was making. Shortly after I was born a deaf friend of my father referred him to the United States Postal Service who took a chance on him, paying five dollars per hour. He’s been there ever since, working an additional job in the stock room at Sears and taking less than a handful of sick days in his 40+ years. He retires this year!

I recently attended a meeting where I heard someone label an overwhelming percentage of unhoused community members “service-resistant” and I wanted to jump out the high-rise office window. Instead I ruminated on the reality that is our consistently packed room of unhoused community members, and imagined them with their middle fingers high in the air at the phrase “service-resistant.” I envision a similar response from members of the underemployed and undervalued deaf community. They are great at hand signs.

It felt like an unaccountable cop-out. It’s true there are individuals who take longer to engage but it’s rarely because they are lazy or disinterested in a secure, dignified life sheltered from the elements with access to a toilet and a belly full of food! It’s more probable that we’ve failed to mold our services to the needs of those members of the community that have been consistently failed by institutions.

Anyone who has given their best attempt to communicate with my mother can tell you that she’s sweeter than a Midwest lemon bar. But to this day, she doesn’t invest time engaging with people who won’t make the effort of meeting her and try to communicate with her at least partially on her terms. My parents don’t respond well to not being included in conversations that take place in the same room as them. They often worry conversations are being had about them, without them. It might sound paranoid, but I’d imagine it can be justified by their previous life experiences. Same rules apply to our Team Members: they show up for shift everyday, and tell us where they want to go from there. We don’t make decisions about them, without them.

That’s why I fell in love with Downtown Streets Team’s individualized, peer-run approach. A Team Member recently put it better than I ever have: …it’s like we are all in the same boat, and society for the most part may have counted us out, but you guys [Downtown Streets Team] haven’t counted us out, we didn’t count ourselves out, we’re still alive and kicking!”

Every morning the majority of our Team Members awake exhausted from a lack of shelter and security, ready themselves to the best of their ability, and join their peers in beautifying their community. If that isn’t work ethic, I don’t know what is.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to humans. We are each multifaceted and evolving. DST will be the first to admit we don’t have all the answers, but our Team Members are helping us find them. San Francisco is in a state of crisis, with over 6,500 human beings unhoused. The time is ripe and together as a Team accountable to one other, we’re inching further in the right direction everyday.

VOL. I – Just Say Hi

By San Francisco Staff

In one of the most innovative cities in the world, San Franciscans are moving quickly towards solutions for many of the world’s problems, yet we do so on a backdrop of severe homelessness: the imagery of people living in dire conditions on the streets has become the standard background of life in the City.

In our current state of affairs, it’s easy to stop seeing unhoused community members as people, and let them blend into “the homeless.” It takes a conscious effort to remind ourselves that homelessness is an experience, not an identity.

When it comes to an issue so large, in a place so heavily entrenched, it can be hard to know what to do. We’re asking folks to start by just saying hi.

Why would we ask people to just say hi?

In consultation with our unhoused participants, we asked them what the most distressing part about being homeless is. Their responses were not, as you might expect, struggling to find food or adequate shelter. Overwhelmingly our Team Members shared that the most demoralizing part of being homeless is the lack of acknowledgment from other people.

Over the next 10 weeks, our DST staff, Team Members, Graduates, close partners and others will contribute to a SF Downtown Streets Team Blog, presenting their unique perspective on what we can do to address homelessness in San Francisco. Team Members will share their life stories, detailing how they became homeless and how they’re rebuilding their lives. The blog will be a platform for unhoused community members and the people they work with to show readers that no one’s path to homelessness is the same. Telling our Team Members’ stories is paramount: we can’t change the face of homelessness without them.

Everyone has a part in ending homelessness in their community. The first step is to just say hi!