Not only do the almost 7,000 homeless residents of San Francisco have to grapple with the obvious challenges of homelessness, there’s another hidden set of challenges that come with their situation: simply accessing the services designed to help them.
Say you’re homeless and trying to get information about your veteran benefits. Once you’ve found the money to ride across the city on Muni, you might wait in line for two hours for an appointment. Then, when you finally reach the front of the line, you realize that you’ve you left your ID at the shelter where you’re staying. Or maybe you reach into your pack to pull out your ID, but realize that everything else you carry in your pack damaged it. Or maybe you left it at another shelter. Now you’ve wasted two hours, and have to trek back across the city. You know what church offers a free meal, but it’s later than you anticipated and they’ve stopped serving: your failed errand has cost you dinner.
That’s just a sample scenario of what homeless residents face everyday while trying to access the services geared to help the: a maze of small indignities and painfully banal problems that might seem simple to housed residents (Muni fare, internet access to look up a service’s hours, a safe place to store valuables) but are magnified to insurmountable obstacles to those experiencing homelessness. San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect aims to change that. The organization holds all-in-one help days several times a year offering over 150 services to assist homeless residents with everything from pet care to getting a California ID card.
“Project Homeless Connect is not about duplicating what already exists in the community, but bringing together what exists and making it easier to access for people experiencing homelessness,” said Emily Cohen, the group’s Deputy Director. “The idea of putting together over 100 different non-profit and city agencies together in a single day is so somebody doesn’t have to go all over town for months trying to get the things that they need, but can talk to the people they need all at once, in a single day.”
Project Homeless Connect got its start in 2004 when then-mayor Gavin Newsom launched the program in conjunction with the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Since then, they’ve held about five well attended events a year: they’ve now served over 75,000 homeless and low income San Franciscans. In 2012, they spun off the events into a daily program, called Every Day Connect, that offers the same kind of needs-based matchmaking on an everyday basis. The large events have been lauded for their success by the federal government's Interagency Council on Homelessness, who deemed it a best practice model. The concept has also been replicated in over 200 cities across the country and in Canada and Australia.
“We really pride ourselves on hospitality, and treating every person who comes through our doors with the utmost dignity and respect: greeting them warmly, offering them a cup of coffee while they wait, and making people feel welcomed,” Cohen said. “We really believe that services in a dignified and compassionate setting are the most successful.”
The next PHC event happens December 16. Before every event, a small army of volunteers is marshaled, a corporate sponsor secured. Volunteers spend the weeks leading up to the event handing out flyers to promote it, but Cohen said the biggest driver of traffic is word of mouth: “‘When people come to Project Homeless Connect and get what they need, and they’re treated with dignity and respect, they share that message with their friends and their peers, [and] it snowballs.”
A typical PHC event aims to cover every resource a homeless or low income person could need, including hair cuts, dental procedures, STD tests, and legal counseling. At their last event in September, they handed out 475 pairs of reading glasses, exchanged 175 needles and repaired 23 walkers or wheelchairs.
Food is also a focus. All attendees have the option to bring home a bag of groceries, provided by the SF Marin Food Bank and carefully tailored to their situation: are they living on the streets, with no access to refrigeration? Are they living in a shelter with limited kitchen access? Are they living in a cramped SRO with no cooking supplies? Attendees, and volunteers, also get a lunch served in a pop-up cafe, typically with relaxing live music playing in the background.
For those who want to donate food, Goldie Pyka, the public relations manager for the Food Bank, recommends looking at their list of most needed items. But there are special considerations to keep in mind when donating to a largely homeless population: “Many of the people who come to PHC also have dental concerns, so soft foods are preferable. Think apple sauce, instant-oatmeal, canned fruits and veggies, beans, etc,” Pyka wrote in an email. “It may sound obvious, but people who are homeless generally have very few personal possessions, so ready-to-eat items are best. But this also means that other items, like ultra-sturdy bags and can openers, are critically important.”
There are also certain items to avoid: “A small but important note is to avoid foods that contain poppy seeds as these can, in some cases, result in a false-positive drug test,” she wrote.
And while some of PHC’s event offerings don’t deal with immediate concerns like food and shelter, Cohen says amenities like photo portraits and massage are still vital services in other ways.
“There are so many sort of peripheral benefits to the services we provide. Take massage. People experiencing homelessness have very high levels of stress in their lives, and to be able to help alleviate some of that burden is tremendous,” Cohen said.
“People sleeping on hard ground outside? Their backs hurt. They’re carrying around their belongings on their feet a lot, so being able to provide massage is a really nice gift,” she continued. “It’s not what you think of when you think of when you think of ending homelessness. But it restores dignity, it restores well being, and it’s a really important part of what we do.”
Like many nonprofits, PHC cobbles together their funding from a variety of sources: city funds, corporate sponsorship, grants and individual donations. And like every nonprofit, they’re in constant need of more of that funding. The group is hoping to expand their events, possibly by making them smaller and more frequent, or devising a mobile event to reach more people.
Yet for all the challenges that come with running such ambitious and large scale events, Cohen says there’s one thing they don’t have to worry about: the support of their community. The group has an active group of hundreds of volunteers who eagerly return to each event. And the group is also a shrewd user of social media. Using the hashtag #PHChelps, they post items needed by their clients--say, a new pair of work boots for someone who got a construction job. Followers repost the message, ideally finding someone who has a spare pair of boots or who’s willing to buy a pair for them off of Amazon. Not every request gets fulfilled, but Cohen said she’s been impressed with the response.
“Homelessness is a community problem and it’s going to require a community response. PHC provides that apparatus for folks in San Francisco and in the Bay Area to get involved, and be an active participant in the solution,” she said. “We get calls everyday from people saying,‘I want to help. I don’t know what to do, but there are so many homeless people in San Francisco, and I want to do something.’ We offer them the ability to get really involved.”