Hundreds of homeless people lined up near San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza this morning to receive help ranging from eye exams to voice mail service–all compliments of the latest Project Homeless Connect.
The event, a service fair that has been held quarterly since 2004, is expected to bring about 2,000 clients and 1,000 volunteers to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium today, event spokesman Kevin McCormack said.
The one-stop shop offers medical exams and information about shelters, government benefits, employment, identification cards, probation and more.
Volunteers use the event, now in its 38th iteration, to try to steer clients into long-term services and, in the best cases, get them off the streets.
“What you’re doing today is part of the history of this city,” Mayor Ed Lee told a group of volunteers, many of them sipping coffee, in the balcony of the auditorium as clients lined up outside.
“We’ve always found a way to do things differently,” he said.
Former Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is now the state’s lieutenant governor, conceived of the project as a way to combat San Francisco’s relentless homeless problem, Lee said.
About 220 other cities are now trying to replicate the program, which has served 31,000 homeless people. Lee advised the volunteers to look for private moments with the clients when they can let them know there’s a way out.
“It’s a great opportunity to change a life,” he said.
Charles Harshaw Jr., who used to be homeless but now volunteers with the project, has been involved with Project Homeless Connect for six years.
He said that at first, people were skeptical of the program and thought it was just a way for city officials to look good, but they came to realize how beneficial it could be.
“I love this program,” he said.
Second-time volunteer Allison Mezen said she hoped to have more personal interaction at this fair with the people seeking services.
Mezen, a second-year student at San Francisco State University, said she served food at the last homeless connect and would be escorting clients around the venue today.
She learned about the event because a professor offered extra credit for participating, and said she now hopes to volunteer as much as possible.
“Homeless people come from such different backgrounds, from all walks of life, and I feel like you can learn a lot from people like that,” she said. “They see life a lot differently than we do.”
The city estimates that between 6,000 and 12,000 people in San Francisco are on the streets on any given night, with 20 percent of them chronically homeless. Project Homeless Connect sends out teams to gather transients and bring them to the service fair.
Volunteer Phil Williams drove a taxicab in San Francisco for 16 years and used his professional connections to secure a Luxor Cab Co. fleet to add to the city vehicles used to bus in clients for the event, he said.
“We’ve found it’s valuable for outreach workers to be able to say, ‘I’ll have a cab for you in 120 seconds,'” he said.
Even so, homeless people can be hesitant to come to the event.
“We say, ‘Is anything going to change in your life in the next three hours?'” he added.
Williams has been volunteering with Project Homeless Connect for about five years.
He said that he was struck while working as a cab driver by how the city couldn’t seem to find a solution to the homelessness problem. Cab riders were always asking what San Francisco was doing to combat homelessness, and the approaches never seemed novel or effective, he said.
He was therefore excited when he learned of Project Homeless Connect, which gave him an opportunity to get involved.
“I really believe that, as Americans, no one should sleep on the cement,” he said.
He also helped organize a stories booth where homeless people share their experiences and can have professional portraits taken. A volunteer photographer offers his services.
The event is being sponsored for the fifth year in a row by California Pacific Medical Center, which provides many of the medical screenings and services offered, homeless connect spokesman McCormack said. The hospital also sent about 100 general-assignment volunteers to today’s fair.
California Pacific CEO Warren Browner often sees patients at Project Homeless Connect events. He said many of them haven’t seen a doctor in a long time and let medical problems stack up until they make it to the fair.
“We see high rates of diabetes, patients with high blood sugar,” he said.
Often, a patient will need to be taken to the emergency room, he said.
“The big emphasis is not just doing episodic care but getting people into consistent treatment,” he said. “We have a high rate of follow-up.”
Today’s event runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, located at 99 Grove St.
The next Project Homeless Connect is scheduled for June 10 in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. More information is available at http://www.projecthomelessconnect.com/home/events/.
Janna Brancolini, Bay City News