Persistence, Community Support Help S.F. Neighborhood Fight Homelessness

In early June, Kristie Fairchild (right) hugs her client, Diane Tomasello, who was homeless and had lost her front teeth. About a year ago, Fairchild and the North Beach Citizens staff helped Tomasello find housing and replace her missing teeth. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

Private chef Marc Vogel cooks for wealthy clients around the world, and he just returned home from a very long trip to Mali and Turkey. But despite his jet lag, he's dropping off a bag of old clothes at a San Francisco neighborhood homeless resource center called North Beach Citizens.

"I have my assistant go through the house, and I take it over because everybody here can use it," Vogel says. He also occasionally cooks at the center's annual fundraiser, an Italian-style dinner hosted by the center's famous founder, film director Francis Ford Coppola. (Until recently, Coppola cooked the meatballs himself.)

"Say what you want about Coppola," gushes Vogel. "At least he's making it happen!"

As San Francisco struggles for solutions to homelessness, North Beach Citizens is viewed by many homeless advocates as a success story, and one that could be replicated in other communities.


"They do really good work. I think they're a beautiful part of that community," says Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. "We certainly have a lot of money in San Francisco and a lot of private donors that could invest in (replicating) this."

Coppola founded the center about 15 years ago to help the homeless people he encountered on his daily walks through the neighborhood. It is currently housed in a former porn theater on a busy stretch of Kearny Street that includes pizza restaurants, strip clubs, residents and tourists.

Hideaki Hirama reads the paper and eats his breakfast at the North Beach Citizens center.
Hideaki Hirama reads the paper and eats his breakfast at the North Beach Citizens center. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

"It's a community," says Kristie Fairchild, a former ceramics artist who Coppola tapped to be the center's executive director. During morning drop-in hours, clients chat quietly as they sip coffee and eat pizza focaccia donated from a local bakery.

"It's a really sweet atmosphere -- a gentle, enjoyable kind of coffee shop environment," Fairchild says.

Against this backdrop, North Beach Citizens offers intensive case management to anyone ready to do what it takes to get off the street. The solutions are as individual as the people themselves.

Take Michael Kelly, 46, who's been homeless for about 15 years. Kelly wants to reconnect with his family. One of Fairchild's community partners, a group called Miracle Messages, is helping him do that.

"They got me in contact with my mom after 10 years on Mother's Day. She freaked out!" says Kelly. "Now I have my sister's number. I haven't talked to her in 15 years."

For others, North Beach Citizens is family. Larry Prescott, 75, comes here almost every week to check in with Fairchild and other caseworkers. A few years ago, he was evicted from his apartment and wound up homeless, sleeping on the streets.

"Because of my age, Kristie took really good care of me. And she put me up in a hotel," Prescott says.

Now he lives in a single-room-occupancy hotel in the Mission District, and he says caseworkers are helping him navigate public housing waiting lists.

"It's a great program," Prescott says. "A lot of these people you see here, any other program would tell them, 'Take a hike.' So, I'm a lucky guy.' "

A client waits to be let in to North Beach Citizens during morning drop-in hours. June 8, 2016
A client waits to be let in to North Beach Citizens during morning drop-in hours. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

There are currently about 75 people enrolled in North Beach Citizens' core program. Twenty are homeless, and the rest are in some type of temporary or permanent housing. Fairchild says that since 2005, her staff has helped more than 300 people out of homelessness.

She concedes the resource center is one of a kind in some ways. Having a celebrity benefactor like Coppola certainly helped. And while many nonprofits in San Francisco are losing their facilities because of the city's hot real estate market, North Beach Citizens' building was purchased for them by an anonymous donor.

But Fairchild says that with a little creativity, other neighborhoods could adopt the model even without these advantages.

"He doesn't give us a dime anymore," Fairchild says. Coppola always believed that once North Beach Citizens was up and running, it would need to "sink or swim" on its own. "It's my board of directors that engages the community to support us," she says.

Fairchild says key ingredients needed to replicate the program include a caring staff that knows the neighborhood, a welcoming physical space where clients can engage with caseworkers and one another, and -- perhaps most importantly -- community buy-in.

"We're not doing this in a vacuum," she says. "In North Beach, I think people understand what we're doing here benefits the community because we're getting people off the streets."

"It's a solid thing," says David Hlopak, a tech executive who lives in the neighborhood. "I mean, of all the charities that I've seen out there, it's like the rubber hits the road and the money and the resources you donate to it get used."

Sam Dodge, who directs the mayor's Office of HOPE (Housing Opportunity, Partnerships & Engagement), agrees that a program like this "takes some funds. It's a lot to maintain. It's hard to find places. But it's not that hard. There are places in every neighborhood that can welcome this."

Fairchild says she can't help everyone who lands on her doorstep. The program has strict rules, and some people aren't ready or able to follow them.

But she doesn't get discouraged. She only wishes more San Francisco communities would leverage their wealth and talent to make ending homelessness a neighborhood priority.

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