Jews join daylong volunteer effort linking homeless to needed services

Hannah, 25, looked like many other young women in San Francisco during an unusually cold week this month. Dressed in a purple down jacket, jeans and boots, she jiggled in place to stay warm as she waited in line outside the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Beneath a fuzzy hat, her hair was tidily combed; in her arms was a small terrier.

At a venue where people ordinarily line up for rock shows, Hannah was waiting for something very different. “Let’s see,” she said, pulling a card out of her purse and running down a printed checklist of services. “I want to get my California ID. I’m going to see the dentist. [The dog] needs veterinary care … and, of course, I’m going to talk to employment services.”

Bundled up on a frigid San Francisco morning, a Project Homeless Connect client waits outside the auditorium. photos/cathleen maclearie

Hannah is homeless. She’s been sleeping illegally in a tent in a park in the Marina District (“it’s one of the nicer neighborhoods, if you’re going to sleep in a park”) for the past few months. She’s one of an estimated 6,500 people in San Francisco with no place to call home. But on Dec. 11, she was among some 1,900 homeless and low-income residents who took part in Project Homeless Connect, gaining access to a wide range of services — from health care to haircuts to legal advice — aimed at improving the lives of those surviving on the city’s streets and in its crowded shelters.

Founded in 2004 by the city’s Department of Public Health, PHC holds regular events to connect homeless clients with needed services, focusing on different populations. But the annual wintertime event is the biggest all-hands effort. This year, 900 volunteers representing Bay Area government agencies, corporations and nonprofits — including a Jewish contingent of 100 from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council — signed up for shifts, doing everything from intake paperwork to foot-washing and massage.

Marquee at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium

On Dec. 11, medical professionals were on hand to provide dental care, hearing tests, acupuncture, vision prescriptions and eyeglasses, testing for sexually transmitted disease, flu shots, a needle-exchange program and more. Social service agencies and nonprofits provided domestic violence counseling, employment assistance, and information about veterans’ benefits, housing and mental health support. Other volunteers acted as escorts, guiding visitors through the auditorium, listening to their stories and assessing how to help them make the best use of their time at PHC.

Among the volunteers was a perhaps disproportionate number of rabbis. Larry Raphael of Congregation Sherith Israel, Camille Angel of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav and Peretz Wolf-Prusan, senior educator at Lehrhaus Judaica, were among the rabbis present for an 8 a.m. Jewish learning session hosted by Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice and JCRC, which organized Jewish programming for the day.

View from the balcony

Participants broke into small groups to discuss three passages of Jewish text pertaining to homelessness, heartbreak and social action. Then they joined an all-volunteers rally before taking to their stations.

“Can we just have all the rabbis introduce themselves?” said Supervisor Bevan Dufty with a laugh during an opening rally for all volunteers. A longtime advocate for the rights of the homeless in San Francisco and the director of the city’s Housing Opportunity, Partnerships & Engagement program, Dufty, who is Jewish, was flanked by Rabbi Beth Singer of Congregation Emanu-El and Jeff Kositsky, the (Jewish) director of the Hamilton Family Center.

Supervisor Bevan Dufty (left), Rabbi Beth Singer and Jeff Kositsky of the Hamilton Family Center

“In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob is on his deathbed. He has traveled to Egypt … and his dying wish is simply to go home,” said Singer, addressing the crowd. “This is one of so many stories in our tradition that teach us the centrality of home. Too many of us take it for granted — and why not? Everyone should have a home. The big deal is that not everyone does.”

Then it was time for action: As the line of homeless individuals snaked around the block, volunteers handed out wristbands denoting what time a client should enter the auditorium. At a bag check station, mothers deposited strollers, men deposited laundry carts. Hannah cautiously left her belongings — which she’s become accustomed to toting everywhere in a large plastic garbage bag — with a volunteer at the station.

JCRC staff members directing volunteers to their stations

This was Rosalind Franklin’s second year volunteering at Project Homeless Connect. She worked an intake station, helping homeless clients determine their priorities for the day.

“For me, this is a reality check about a world that I don’t live in, a world that so many people live in every day,” said Franklin, the president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, during a break from her shift. “Every time I check someone in, I hear a little bit about their story, and it’s such a privilege to just sit and listen — because it is a private, vulnerable thing. And it’s so easy for us to go around in our everyday bubble, I do think it’s really important to take time out to see, and hear and feel a little bit.

“Even if it’s just for a short period, it helps to acknowledge how fortunate most of us are,” she added. “We have families and we have support systems, and the mental health we were given, the circumstances we were born into … it’s being fortunate, and nothing more.”

JCRC’s Rabbi Doug Kahn escorting a client

Last year, she recalls, she was escorting a homeless client who asked her to have lunch with him. It was against the rules, so she declined — but when he asked again, she thought, “Why not?”

“What else am I here for, if not to connect for a little while? To listen, to try to brighten someone’s day if I can?” she said. She spent lunch seated at a table of homeless individuals, listening to their stories. It was eye-opening, she said, to hear that many did not want to use the shelters provided by the city.

“If you’re an adult, and you’ve been married or lived on your own, how difficult would it be to live somewhere with curfews, where someone’s telling you what to do?” she said. “Others don’t feel safe there. They feel safer on the street. But nobody wants to be homeless.”

Despite having some of the highest housing prices in the country, San Francisco has long been known as a haven for homeless people, in part because of the city’s tolerance and its extensive outreach. According to the 2013 Homeless Count Reports issued by the Human Services Agency, nearly 40 percent of those counted in San Francisco said they had come to the city after becoming homeless elsewhere, especially true for youth under 25, veterans and LGBT people.

Other services included eye exams and haircuts

Dufty noted that he was particularly proud of the strides the city had made in helping LGBT homeless youth, many of whom come to San Francisco after being kicked out of their homes or running away from unaccepting parents. Overall, 29 percent of the homeless population in San Francisco identifies as gay. The first Project Homeless Connect specifically for the LGBT community took place in October, drawing 300 volunteers and 100 service providers and helping nearly 500 homeless people, according to PHC executive director Kara Zordel.

“This day makes me really happy,” said Dufty as the morning rally wrapped up and volunteers took to their stations, “and especially to see the Jewish community come out like this — it’s not surprising, but it makes me feel very proud every time.”

Wolf-Prusan said it was a “record day” for helping the homeless. Working a check-in table from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., he said he was kept busy the entire time.

Nick Josefowitz, a board member at JCRC, was another volunteer returning to PHC for his second year. He came back in part because working as an escort and helping people find their way around the event was incredibly rewarding, he said.

Rosalind Franklin volunteering at PHC for her second time

“It’s amazing how many different services are offered, but it can also be a bit overwhelming,” he said. “And as you escort them around, the stories you hear are just so heartbreaking. People who were promised a job in San Francisco and when they moved here, the job wasn’t here. People who, through no fault of their own, find themselves out on the street. I escorted one woman who’d just been kicked out of the house by her long-term boyfriend, and she simply had nowhere else to go.”

Viewed from the balcony seats, the auditorium floor was a sight to behold. A long table offered piles of books, from adult best-sellers to kids’ picture books. At a wheelchair repair station, volunteers worked on canes, walkers and chairs. At the massage station, homeless men and women surrendered their aching bodies to the capable hands of professional massage therapists. A donation bin collected socks; PHC was shooting for a total of 2,000 pairs. (Socks help to prevent foot ailments exacerbated by ill-fitting shoes, wet feet or constant standing.) A San Francisco Food Bank table offered bags of groceries. In another corner, Singers of the Street, a choir made up of San Francisco homeless residents, sang holiday songs.

Emil Knopf, a Holocaust survivor and repeat volunteer

Since its founding, PHC has been replicated in 260 cities across the U.S., as well as in Australia and Canada. In San Francisco, the organization reported that, as of December 2012, some 45,524 volunteers had provided services to 67,605 homeless and low-income San Franciscans.

Emil Knopf, 80, is a Holocaust survivor, a past president of the Jewish fraternal organization B’nai B’rith, and a repeat PHC volunteer. Working as a client escort on Dec. 11, he greeted everyone he was tasked with showing around — many of them men much taller and more physically able than him — with a warm smile. Earlier in the morning at the Jewish learning session, looking over the three passages of text, participants had been asked to share which resonated with them and why. Knopf had pointed to the words penned by Raphael:

“We Jews know what it means to be homeless. By the end of the Holocaust, 6 million Jews had been exterminated and millions more uprooted from their homes all over Europe … during the 15th to 18th centuries, 15 to 25 percent of the Jewish community were either paupers or unemployed.”

But when asked what drew him to the event, Knopf simply smiled and replied, “I like to stay involved.”

Susan Lubeck, regional director of Bend the Arc

For Josefowitz, taking part in the volunteer work as a member of the Jewish community made it especially meaningful. “I think it’s really powerful the way the Jewish community gets involved,” he said. “Tikkun olam is such a core part of our identity. And on a personal level, being able to combine learning and spiritual engagement with service work means a lot. I think days like this help people realize that they do have the time to do something: If you can only give half a day once a year, do that. It does mean something.”

Echoed volunteer Franklin: “My rabbi once said something that was very impactful, which was ‘Even if you don’t feel like you have anything to offer to solve homelessness, you can look a person in the eye and say hello.’ And I think about that here. Because that does make a difference. You can recognize that we’re all just people.”

on the cover

photo/cathleen maclearie

Project Homeless Connect, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.