Three Jewish seniors make their mark helping the homeless

As the doors to Project Homeless Connect swing open, hundreds of homeless San Franciscans are lined up outside. Inside, more than a thousand volunteers are poised to offer them dozens of services under one roof.

Among those awaiting the arrival of homeless clients at their stations are three dedicated volunteers from San Francisco’s Jewish seniors community — Bill Slatkin, Jim Blattner and Joyce Kurtz. Since Project Homeless Connect began in 2004, seasoned volunteers like Slatkin, Blattner and Kurtz have brought unflinching sensitivity, stability and poise to this demanding bimonthly event.

“Volunteers are the heartbeat of Project Homeless Connect,” says program director Judith Klain. “Our senior volunteers contribute immeasurable wisdom, generosity, fearlessness and compassion acquired throughout a lifetime of experience.”

Bill Slatkin, 64, sits ready at the client intake table, where he registers clients and explains the array of services they will encounter, which include medical, dental, vision, employment, behavioral health, legal, benefits, IDs, lunch, groceries and housing.

“Each person’s manner will be a little different. Whether cocky, confused or appreciative, they are all in somewhat the same circumstances but have individual ways of introducing themselves to services,” Slatkin said.

“First, you welcome them and right away try to convey ‘I’m just here to help.’ They look at you, and you look at them, and there’s that moment when you make a connection, human being to human being. Then, it’s a matter of helping them through the process, identifying what they can most benefit from.”

As the clients prioritize their needs, Slatkin makes notes on their registration forms and advises where they should go first, because some of the most popular stations have limited availability. He registers a steady, daylong stream of clients for an average of 10 to 15 minutes each, enough time to build a bond of trust.

“With one fellow, we went down the list of services and came to ‘psychological counseling.’ He was quick to decline, but later — understanding there was no judgment from my side of the table — he felt more comfortable talking about being troubled and selecting the counseling,” Slatkin said.

Slatkin has been involved with Project Homeless Connect for the past 18 months, at the same time that he has been spearheading a volunteer security program for his Potrero Hill neighborhood and working full time as a consultant and author.

“Here’s the thing with Project Homeless Connect,” Slatkin said. “Everybody in San Francisco agrees that homelessness is a major problem. Here’s an opportunity to help solve that problem. It’s unthinkable not to jump at the chance to take part in the solution. Like Rabbi Hillel said: ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?’

“My mom was like this, too,” he continued. “What we do in this life is, we get involved with our community.”

Leaving the intake table, clutching their completed registration forms, the clients are introduced to an escort, accompanied into the service center and guided to whichever area Slatkin has marked as their first priority. Clients escorted to dental screening are likely to be greeted by Jim Blattner, 72. Retired from a 28-year career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Blattner was inspired to volunteer by an article he read about Project Homeless Connect. At first he was assigned to different areas, until he landed in dental screening and wanted to stay.

“For the last four events, I’ve assigned myself there,” he said. “I keep track of who’s waiting to see the dentist and keep order among the clients in line for screening. My second time in dental, I came back with a roll of numbers like at the deli. I went to an office supply store and got a huge roll that will last for a couple of years.”

According to Nancy Rock, the supervising staff member in dental screening, Blattner’s initiative and grace under pressure epitomizes an older volunteer’s assets. “Jim knows when to take charge and when to step back. He’s a star, and I depend on him,” Rock said.

“There are some real challenges at Project Homeless Connect,” Blattner acknowledges. “You meet and deal with a variety of people with mental issues, or who have been released from prison. An older volunteer can be less threatening to them. I’ve been in San Francisco 50 years, and I understand that the people on the street are just trying to get by.”

Blattner also volunteers at Congregation Sherith Israel and, like Slatkin, credits his Jewish upbringing for his dedication to volunteering. “The values of tzedakah are as important a part of Judaism as worship. We were shown our family’s charitable bent by example, not told by lecturing. Public service becomes natural because you’re living your core values, but then you realize on reflection that it’s very satisfying,” he said.

“What keeps you going at Project Homeless Connect is reaching out to people, giving them a hand,” he continued. “You’re not dealing strictly with bureaucrats, so you have direct contact and knowledge that you’re helping. You get reminded that these are people just like us, who made bad choices or didn’t have the advantages we had. Most are very appreciative of any kindness you show to them, and many people through Project Homeless Connect have been able to turn their lives around.”

Joyce Kurtz, 62, got involved with Project Homeless Connect when she read about it in the San Francisco Chronicle. “I was very moved by it. I pulled out my checkbook but wanted to do more to help people directly instead of just donating.”

Kurtz assists in the Story Project, where clients and volunteers can have their photograph taken and/or their personal story recorded.

The service was conceived by a former client as a dignified opportunity for everyone to be seen and heard on event day. Kurtz records the clients’ stories on iPods she borrows from her kids and Project Homeless Connect staff.

“I so believe in the Story Project because it’s such a unique opportunity to sit and talk with people. How did they become homeless? What are their dreams and goals? Have they been there before? Did they get the services they wanted? It’s so easy to stereotype people you see on the street,” she said.

“Oftentimes people who want to talk with us defy your stereotypes. They are from all socioeconomic backgrounds and not uneducated. If the volunteers were not wearing T-shirts, in many cases it would be hard to tell them from the clients,” she added.

“You think, ‘This woman surely must be a professor at Berkeley.’ The clients are really just like us, and here you see their humanity. You realize that there but for the grace of your family, crazy Aunt Sadie could be on the street.

“The bulk of clients are trying to change their lives. They might say, ‘I think I can get in the methadone program. This is the time I’m really going to get my life together.’ We as a city are making inroads into this problem, and over 100 other cities have come here to pattern their own Project Homeless Connect after ours.

“The best thing we are doing at the Story Project is sitting down with people and listening to them, giving them undivided, non-judgmental attention.”

Kurtz retired from managing her husband’s optical office to volunteer full time. Her volunteer positions have included being a tutor, a Botanical Gardens docent, president of Congregation Beth Israel in Carmel and a New Orleans relief worker.

She displays the sensibility that keeps fellow volunteers Slatkin and Blattner coming back to Project Homeless Connect. “We read stories about homelessness and ask, ‘What can I do? How can I approach it?’ Homeless people look frightening to us for a variety of reasons.

“At Project Homeless Connect, we can move beyond our comfort zone in a very safe environment — with a lot of staff, volunteers and law enforcement,” she continued. “Volunteers come to Project Homeless Connect and wash people’s feet and rehabilitate their wheelchairs. You can really stretch your boundaries.

“Every two months, for a half day or a whole day, you help out on something that seemed hopeless, but in fact is not hopeless. I have my nice house in Noe Valley to come home to. I don’t have the right to not be making a difference in the world.”

For information on Project Homeless Connect, call (415) 255-3674 or visit