Practicing value of human dignity with S.F.s homeless

On another day, Dick Heiman might have been swinging his club on the golf course.

But on this exceptionally chilly San Francisco morning, Heiman queued up in the cavernous Bill Graham Civic Auditorium to help homeless men and women navigate Project Homeless Connect, a daylong, one-stop shop that links the needy to myriad nonprofit medical and social service providers.

It was the sixth annual Jewish Community Volunteer Day, and Heiman showed up with companions Nick Josefowitz and Rabbi Carla Fenves of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

“My experiences with the homeless have not been very positive,” said Heiman, a member of Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. “I’m hoping to see another side today.”

For six hours on Dec. 12, 100 volunteers from Jewish organizations and synagogues joined hundreds of others from across the Bay Area to offer a helping hand to homeless and low-income San Franciscans. Volunteers directed the guests to providers offering assistance with jobs and housing, government benefits, getting eyeglasses — even acupuncture. Across the street in U.N. Plaza, veterinarians provided pet care.

For many in this population, each day is a struggle. Replacing a lost Social Security or ID card can require a daylong commitment or more, trekking from one government office to another. Such “normal” needs as haircuts, medical checkups and wheelchair repair are out of reach.

“We wanted to be the first face people see when they come in the door,” said Laura Rumpf, program associate with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, which organized the Jewish volunteer contingent.

As she walked a woman to the barber, chatting sociably in fluent Spanish, a man approached wearing a surgical mask, his arm in a sling. Rumpf directed him to the foot washing station, which proved one of the most popular services (foot care is a constant concern for those on the streets).

Portable curtains designated examination rooms in the clinic. Some 250 people would be seen and referred to follow-up care, said volunteer physician Don Bardole.  Several people patiently waited for a dental screening — the first in years for some.

In the massage area, a masseuse worked silently using elbows, knuckles and thumbs to loosen the knots in a man’s neck. A look at the holding area where people had parked their bulging frame backpacks and overstuffed shopping carts — the personal belongings they carry around every day — explained the station’s popularity.

One woman sat patiently, her dog in her lap, while mechanics worked on her broken wheelchair. She would later visit providers offering help with housing, jobs and DMV issues — all told, a lineup of errands that could otherwise take months, Project Homeless Connect representatives say.

By midday, Heiman was working the floor efficiently.

“Six out of seven [encounters] have been very positive,” he said as he rushed off to his next mission. One man he tried to help “got frustrated and left,” but in general, he said, “people are very grateful.

“It’s interesting that the clients who attended were smiling, very upbeat,” he noted. “I also enjoyed the opportunity to connect with other Jews in the community.”

As if on cue, Singers of the Street, a choral group made up of homeless and formerly homeless people, began singing “Hinei Ma Tov,” a Hebrew song proclaiming, “How good it is to sit together with friends.”

Caring for the city’s estimated 4,550 to 7,550 homeless is not just a decent thing to do, it is a Jewish responsibility, said JCRC executive director Rabbi Doug Kahn.

“This is a Jewish concern because we are mandated to reach out to the least protected,” he said. “The second reason is the talmudic mandate to feed the non-Jewish poor as well as the Jewish poor for the sake of peace.

“The underlying value,” he pointed out, “is the value of human dignity.”

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.