Month: September 2016

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

 

dst-shirt

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 always preferred the smaller setting of nannying, and it was really something. I got to travel all over 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 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 trying, 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, 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.