Last week, the REDF team volunteered at Project Homeless Connect at the San Francisco Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. It’s easy to be daunted by the experience. So many people need help and whether it’s glasses, dental services, or housing; there never seems to be enough resources to go around. Even with the challenges, it’s impressive to see the many people and organizations all assembled in one place to make as much of an impact as possible in one day.
As a volunteer “generalist,” I was fortunate to be assigned the unique role of escorting people getting a shelter bed or temporary housing to the other services they needed to make sure they returned to claim their housing. Given the size of the Bill Graham Auditorium and the maze of lines, tables, and services, sometimes people did not make it back to claim their housing before the end of the day.
I sat waiting for an assignment and watched as the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) staff worked with people – taking assessments, filling out paperwork, and sending them on their way. The waiting area for HOT was filling up, but no news on people getting housing. Feeling a bit useless, I offered to create a sign-in sheet to help organize the wait. It was only 10:30 am, but you could feel the stress starting to bubble up. With limited housing available, everyone wanted to be next. Then I saw a man sitting opposite one of the intake workers who looked really familiar. I couldn’t place his face, but I knew that I had seen him before. The intake worker waved me over.
She introduced us and told me that he was getting housing today, but needed to take care of a few other things. “Congratulations,” I said, “that’s great news! I have to tell you, you look very familiar.” “So do you,” he replied. We looked at each other for a few more moments, both a little hesitant on how to proceed. I told him that I used to work for the City of San Francisco, thinking maybe we had been at a community meeting together. “Oh,” he said, “I sell Street Sheets.” He identified his usual spot and that was it.
I had spent five years walking to and from the Bart station, passing him almost every morning and evening. I usually try to make eye contact and acknowledge people living on the street with a smile or greeting as I pass by. I always received a warm greeting, smile, and it set me off to work or home with a sense of human connection and hope. Even on the worst of days, he would be there – sharing a smile or kind word – reminding me of the true privilege I have to use my voice to create opportunities and support for others.
I spent my entire volunteer shift helping him navigate the maze, not that he needed my help. As we stood in line for the DMV services, I listened to him tell me the story of his amazing life and the sudden sad turn of events that left him alone and on the streets, something that could happen to any of us. I heard him tell me how he gets fresh water, finds warmth and protection from the elements (only sometimes), has his things stolen at least 3 times a year, and yet he continues on.
Pleased to finally have a place to stay, he carefully selected a couple of friends to share the news, people on the street he knew who would be genuinely happy for him.
We got back to the HOT team who were going to take him to the Single Room Occupancy hotel to check-in. I asked him how he thought tonight would be different. He looked at me and said simply, “I get to sleep in a bed,” as a smile spread over his face like it was a dream. It was a dream –housing and an ID all in one day after 11 years on the street. Next step – a job.
We embraced before parting ways, both feeling blessed by what happened. Last week I got to know a man I already knew and I’m a better person for it.