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.”