Tag: San Francisco

LinkedIn Interns Say ‘Hi’ and Raise 10,000 to End Homelessness

In late March 2016, Downtown Streets Team launched its work experience model for unhoused community members in San Francisco, a city that we know and love for its diverse, creative, and charmingly gritty culture. Three months after our launch, we were thrilled to have the attention of the largest employment oriented social networking company in the world, LinkedIn.

Working with LinkedIn’s Interns for Good was a no-brainer for us. In fact, we’re humbled to admit that Downtown Streets Team attempted to make our own employment-oriented social networking site a few years back. Yeah, that failed. Not just because we’re social workers making a poor attempt at engineering, but because access to technology has drastically improved for the unhoused community enough to make LinkedIn a viable resource for folks living on the streets. There couldn’t be a more exciting time to launch our non-profit in one of the most innovative and tech-savvy cities in the world.

San Franciscans know life isn’t golden for everyone in the City. Everyday we’re faced with over 8,000 people experiencing homelessness, and while the problem at large is so visible, the individuals themselves seem to blend together. It takes a conscious effort to remind ourselves the folks we see struggling are people, not just “the homeless,” and that everyone has a different path that led them to the street.

In consultations with our Team Members, we asked them what the most distressing aspect of homelessness is. Their responses were not as you might expect, the lack of adequate shelter, food or a sense of safety. We were told that the most difficult part of homelessness is the lack of acknowledgement from other people. This led to San Francisco Downtown Streets Team’s Just Say Hi campaign.

LinkedIn’s Interns for a Cause took our concept and ran with it. They demonstrated an impassioned and thorough understanding of our goal to end social hesitation around acknowledging homeless community members. People want to help end homelessness, but they don’t know how. Everyone can start by simply saying hi. The interns did exactly they: they saw our Team Members (homeless community members) cleaning the street, and asked who they were.

From that first interaction, the interns designed a program where coworkers could send a simple hello to a fellow employee accompanied with a message and a treat in return for making a donation. More than 300 employees participated, raising $2,755 for us! This program was a proof of concept for us: when asked to be thoughtful and reach out to someone, employees were inclined to take action and make a connection. Once someone received a Just Say Hi message, they were inspired to send one themselves. It was even worth a donation on their part. You can’t put a price on human connection, and this program proved that positivity breeds positivity. This is something we’ve seen in our work as well: when you start treating someone with dignity, they will rise to the occasion. The interns’ Just Say Hi message program proved positive attention yields real results.

With continued organized efforts, the LinkedIn interns in partnership with the LinkedIn for Good team raised over $10,000 for our San Francisco Team. Given the success of the campaign, we hope to replicate it across our organization.

With this funding, we can grow our Team and provide more services to more people. Our San Francisco Team is the fastest growing of the seven branches DST has established across the Bay Area. In the past six months, we have helped 22 individuals find permanent employment, and another 16 find temporary employment. For many of our folks, this was a huge step. Having not worked for years, many Team Members at first don’t have confidence they could return to work. However, after a weekend gig cleaning up after Outside Lands and San Francisco Pride, they realized they do have what it takes to get a job, and began putting out applications and setting-up a LinkedIn profile.

When the LinkedIn Interns saw our Team and reached out to just say hi, we had no idea where it would lead. Here we are, together taking steps towards ending homelessness one person, one human connection and one job at a time.

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. 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 alys referred the smaller setting of nannying, and it was really something. I got to travel allover 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 the 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 try, 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 and be more like living in, 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. 

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.

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!