We are our brothers keepers

Everyone says they want to help the homeless. This month, the Bay Area Jewish community will come together to feed, clothe, coif and heal them.

It all happens on Jewish Community Volunteer Day at Project Homeless Connect (PHC), San Francisco’s bimonthly all-day bazaar of caring. The event takes place Wednesday, Aug. 29 at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

Since 2004, PHC has staged its “one-stop shopping” event, at which volunteers provide an array of medical, dental, legal and other services to make life a little easier for thousands of area homeless.

Seventeen Jewish community agencies and synagogues have signed up as co-sponsors of Jewish Community Volunteer Day. Spearheaded by the Jewish Community Relations Council, organizations taking part include B’nai Brith, Progressive Jewish Alliance, AMIT, Jewish Family and Children’s Services and synagogues such as Congregation Sherith Israel, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav and Congregation Emanu-El.

“This is the first year we are affiliated with PHC,” says JCRC program associate Casey Cohen. “PHC staff came to us to see if they could engage the San Francisco faith communities. A formerly homeless Hispanic woman spoke to us, and it really inspired the room. [PHC] needed us to spread the word and help recruit volunteers.”

For the hundreds of homeless men, women and children expected to attend, those volunteers contribute in myriad ways. Dentists provide on-the-spot checkups. Stylists will offer free haircuts. Lawyers will give free legal advice, while Sprint PCS will allow homeless participants to make free calls anywhere in the country. Everyone leaves with free hygiene kits, groceries from a food bank and, most importantly, hope for a better future.

“We’re not a blanket, cup of coffee and a nice sandwich,” says PHC marketing and business coordinator Nancy Rock. “We engage people into the system of care. A homeless person can receive in one day what could normally take eight months.”

Adds Cohen, “This is a phenomenal project which has been modeled internationally. It provides [volunteers] with hands-on direct service. They’ll feel empowered and they’ll make a difference.”

Rabbi Marvin Goodman, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, signed on as soon JCRC approached him. He’ll be there Aug. 29, and between now and then he will urge Bay Area Jews to get involved.

“It seems to me it’s something people need to be at,” says the former rabbi of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. “We are part of a community, not just Jews doing things for Jews. We are our brothers’ keepers.”

Volunteerism fuels the success of PHC. A 501C3 nonprofit organization, Project Homeless Connect was created by Mayor Gavin Newsom and former political aide Alex Tourk in 2004. It is funded by donations and grants, with most services and materials donated as well. PHC partners with the Department of Public Health.

Rock says between 12,000 and 15,000 homeless people currently live in San Francisco, with up to 4,000 of them considered to be chronically homeless. About 50 percent of that population is single men, the remainder being seniors, single women, mothers with children, and children alone.

“They could be you or me,” adds Rock. “It is commonly said that about 12 percent of Americans are a paycheck away from being homeless. We’re not trying to replace any other nonprofit for the homeless, but we try to make sure people have easier access to care, getting into shelters and away from the street.”

JCRC organizers say one need not be a doctor or dentist to contribute. Anyone can volunteer, even if it’s just to greet homeless individuals as they enter the auditorium or hand out bags of food.

“We’re blessed to give back not only with money but with time and energy,” says Goodman. “Jews should go because it’s something that needs to be done. There are homeless people who need to have some kind of support, whether it’s food, medical or just having people that care.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.