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.
- 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.