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.