November 2012

Homeless Connect Helps Bayview Families, But May Leave Out Individuals

Liz Melchor

Project Homeless Connect (PHC), which was launched in 2004 under Mayor Gavin Newsom, is best known for its bimonthly events held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, at which homeless individuals are offered everything from acupuncture to Department of Motor Vehicle services under one roof. Since 2007, PHC has been hosting a similar, albeit smaller, annual event at the Southeast Health Clinic, on Keith Street.

This past summer, PHC made some changes to its Bayview event. They geared it towards homeless families instead of individuals, moved the event to Bayview Opera House, and renamed it “Family Connect.” At the Opera House, 400 PHC volunteers spent a day distributing groceries, conducting eye exams, and providing dental care to 750 homeless attendees.

This was PHC’s second Family Connect. The first had been held in 2009 at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Kara Zordel, PHC’s executive director, decided to bring it to Bayview because she saw a need. “In the last five years at the Bayview events, sometimes families didn’t feel comfortable attending. We wanted to offer special services for families. Right now the shelter waitlist for families has skyrocketed,” said Zordel. At the event, Joe Ramos, a local documentary photographer, took family portraits. Children were given canvas bags filled with stuffed animals, snuggly blankets, and books from Project Night Night, a local charity that distributes packages to 25,000 homeless children a year. Twenty children enrolled in public schools.

Bayview Magic, which hosts an annual backpack giveaway, preregistered families to receive backpacks filled with school supplies and uniforms, according to Lyslynn Lacoste, the nonprofit’s director. And PHC helped Bayview Magic secure more donations, enabling the organization to increase the number of backpacks it distributed, from 2,200 in 2011 to more than 3,000 in 2012. “It was a great event and a great partnership. It was the first year we were able to do it. I want to thank them for even having the foresight for calling,” said Lacoste.

Barbara Ockel, a Bayview resident since 1993 and the Bayview Opera House’s director, was also impressed by the event. She’d previously volunteered at PHC’s Bill Graham events, and had recruited dental clinics to participate in Sunday Streets to offer fluoride treatments to kids. “They did an excellent job at organizing it. People weren’t waiting in line forever. There were a lot of volunteers and a great array of services,” she said of the gathering.

“We are a collaborator. We are a connecting point between all these agencies. You don’t have to go one place for glasses, and another for dental,” said Zordel. Services are provided in an atmosphere of fun, with complimentary food, music, and popsicles. “When people see something going on, they just come in,” said Ockel.

But not everyone was impressed. Gwendolyn Westbrook, chief executive officer of United Council of Human Services and Mother Brown’s Kitchen, which provides services to homeless individuals in Bayview throughout the year, said she didn’t attend, and neither did most of her clients. In previous years, her patrons would get so excited for the annual PHC event they’d offer to volunteer, something Westbrook discouraged. “I said this is your day, getting your teeth pulled and having their feet checked,” she said.

At this year’s Family Connect there were far fewer services available for homeless individuals. “What they had planned was a wonderful thing, but it excluded my clients. They took a good event and destroyed it for the single people of the Bayview,” she said. According to Zordel, even though it was a family event, singles were welcome, and made up 40 percent of those served. Westbrook, however, countered that because a lot of her clients are sex offenders and pedophiles, they couldn’t attend Family Connect. “The people I work with have been thrown out by everybody but us. They are still human, though,” said Westbrook. “I don’t know how to express the hurt that they were excluded.”

Westbrook said that while there are some homeless families in Bayview, the majority of that population is single. “They were bussing in families from the Tenderloin. It was good to have Family Connect. Still, the people in Bayview Hunters-Point were not served,” she said.

The 2011 San Francisco Homeless Count, which surveys shelters, transitional housing, and other facilities serving the homeless to estimate the City’s homeless population, counted 2,100 homeless people in District 10. Of those, 75 were families. In District 6, home of the Tenderloin, 420 families were counted, out of 2,600 homeless. However, the Homeless Count uses a strict definition of homelessness; perhaps too strict. “What is homelessness? Is homelessness somebody who is doubled up?” Zordel asked, pointing to people living three to four to a room. According to Zordel, gentrification is pushing families out of Bayview, and a still stagnant job market is similarly impacting them.

Zordel plans to have Family Connect in Bayview next year. “We weren’t even sure we were going to keep doing it, but it was so successful that we definitely want to make sure we are out there every year,” she said.

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