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.