On Monday, November 13, a vacant storefront that formerly housed the California Art Supply store on San Pablo Avenue was the venue for the East Bay version of San Francisco’s hugely successful Project Homeless Connect. Although the doors didn’t open until 9:30 a.m., people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless began to line up hours before—drawn by the promise of warm clothing, medical care, haircuts, shelter beds, a host of other services and a hot meal.

Monday’s event was the third held in Oakland—but the first at which the City of Berkeley joined Oakland and Alameda County as sponsors—and included 36 agencies and non-profit organizations that provide services to the homeless.

According to Susan Shelton, who is Manager of Community Housing for the City of Oakland, 506 people went through the intake process and 600 (including volunteers and service providers) ate a hot lunch served at the Howie T. Harp Service Center across the street. With the onset of cold, wet weather, warm winter clothing was on the want list of virtually all the clients.

Shelton was particularly pleased with the outpouring of donations including new coats and a limited number of tents and backpacks from North Face plus clothing donated by the First Church of Religious Science and numerous individuals. Additional clothing that was donated through the “One Warm Coat” program will be distributed at Oakland’s Annual Thanksgiving Dinner, November 21, at the downtown Hyatt, including 300 coats from Clorox employees and more still from local Brownies and Girl Scouts.

Although the clients were very gratified by the services offered, there were a couple of disappointments. One being the lack of eye care. LensCrafters has been regularly providing eye examinations and same day prescriptions at the San Francisco Homeless Connect events. So far, Oakland has been unable to lure LensCrafters or any other opticians to provide this service. The other disappointment was a one-week delay in the opening of the City’s Winter Shelter, which is moving to a new location on the Oakland Army Base. Some 50 names were added to the waiting list and, as in the past, the 100 beds available will be quickly taken.

These few disappointments were, however, far outweighed by a multitude of successes big and small. For example, according to an article in the Berkeley Daily Planet, 60 people signed up for the Lifelong Medical Program, which describes itself as “the primary ‘safety net’ provider of medical services to the uninsured and those with complex health needs in Berkeley, North Oakland, Albany and Emeryville.” Also, when I checked at noon, the Food Stamp program had already processed twenty applications.

This afternoon, I spoke with Patricia Wall, the Executive Director of the Homeless Action Center (HAC) which has been based in Berkeley since 1990. HAC’s main focus is on serving as advocates for the homeless—particularly, as it relates to Medi-Cal, General Assistance and Social Security. Wall indicated that they spoke to 60 people on Monday—two-thirds male and mostly African-American and mostly in their mid to late forties. During the course of the event, they filled out 20 applications for General Assistance, which provides $28 per month to people with no other income. While this amount is extremely minimal, qualifying for general assistance also entitles recipients to $152 per month in food stamps. More importantly, Wall said the overwhelming majority of those they interviewed have a strong work history and are probably qualified for Social Security benefits up to $836 per month plus eligibility for Medi-Cal.

Since SSI regulations are extremely arcane, HAC made no attempt to process applications at this homeless outreach event. What they did instead was to invite interested individuals to visit their new offices at 2272 San Pablo in a portion of what used to be the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Shop on the corner of Grand and San Pablo. Ribbon-cutting ceremonies will be held December 13 and the office will be staffed by three attorneys hired by the Alameda County Social Service Agency.

Ms. Wall pointed out that getting qualified individuals onto Social Security is a huge plus, but still only half the battle since there is a major shortage of affordable housing in the East Bay. In San Francisco’s Tenderloin, by comparison, there is an abundant supply of Single Occupancy Rooms, but the majority of the downtown hotels in Oakland that provided SRO were wiped out by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. From what she says, there is a growing awareness that the ultimate solution to hard-core homelessness is to provide affordable, supervised housing and, nationwide, funding is becoming available for this specific purpose.

All the participating agencies will most likely be back for the next Homeless Connect Event—tentatively scheduled for April 20th, the day the Winter Shelter closes. Organizers are again counting on a good turnout of volunteers. According to Susan Shelton, 86 volunteers participated on the 13th. About a quarter of those worked as “buddies”—greeting clients as they arrived and escorting them through the premises pointing out the various services.

I invited a number of the “buddies” to comment on their experiences and their replies follow:

Mary Ellen Navas

I learned about the Homeless Connect event through e-mail notices from the PSA 3 Yahoo group [PSA 3 is Police Service Area 3, which includes much of the Lake Merritt area] and our Neighborhood Service Coordinator, Hoang Banh, through her communication to the Grand Lake Community Council, and the Splash Pad Neighborhood Forum newsletter. Getting multiple messages helped push me into volunteering because I was somewhat ambivalent.

I am aware of how complex the problems of homelessness are, and I’ve been reluctant to become involved out of a sense of “it’s impossible to make a difference.” I volunteered to learn more, and for that it was a great experience. I learned that there are more helping agencies than I knew, but that it’s not easy to navigate among them or to discern the offerings of each of them. Also, it doesn’t appear that all the services combined are anywhere near to enough, particularly when it comes to shelter/housing.