Castro homeless program sees results
by Matthew S. Bajko
Early last Thursday morning Elester Hubbard and Charles Garcia set out on a loop through the heart of San Francisco's Castro district in search of homeless individuals interested in utilizing an array of city services, from temporary housing to medical care.
Stocked with a number of care packages – plastic re-sealable bags filled with power bars, a juice box, socks, and toiletries, they walked first along the 500 and 400 blocks of Castro Street then turned north up Market Street and stopped at Jane Warner Plaza, the public parklet built at the intersection there on a section of 17th Street.
Half a dozen homeless individuals were hanging out next to the Muni platform in the plaza, and several accepted the pair's offer of a care package. One woman, Lexie Evans, 25, had slept in the parklet that night with a male companion, as she said the person they had been staying with was in the hospital.
"I like it better than the Haight. People are friendlier here," Evans, who is bisexual, told the Bay Area Reporter when asked why she had spent the night in the city's LGBT district.
Earlier, when asked by Hubbard how her health was, Evans responded, "OK," but declined when he asked if she needed any services. She told the B.A.R. she avoided staying in city-run shelters because she has "a lot of anxiety issues."
Originally from Los Angeles, Evans said she arrived in San Francisco in February when she left Humboldt. Overall, she has had a "positive" experience while in the city.
"I haven't had any problems out here. It has been fun getting to know the interesting personalities out here," she said, adding that the Castro "has become home to me."
While Evans and her friend declined their offer of services, Hubbard and Garcia nonetheless noted their friendly interaction was a success. Members of the city's Homeless Outreach Team, twice a week they are hired by the Castro Cares program to focus solely on interacting with homeless individuals in the gayborhood.
"Sometimes we get a warm welcome and sometimes people don't want to be bothered. All of our services are voluntary," said Hubbard, who has worked for more than a year as an emergency responder for the city's Homeless Outreach Team and has been working for the Castro Cares program since August. "Even if they decline services, we aim to build a rapport with them."
On this morning Hubbard and Garcia were also promoting the December 7 Project Homeless Connect event, where homeless individuals could access numerous services under one roof. Over the course of 90 minutes, they had encountered close to a dozen people on Market Street between Castro and Octavia Boulevard, many they had never met before.
Most engaged with them briefly, either accepting a care package or a flier about the upcoming connect event. One gentleman, an elderly individual seated outside Weaver's Coffee, smiled hello when he saw Hubbard and Garcia.
"He is one of our regulars," said Hubbard, adding that they had built up trust with the man over time to the point where they were able to convince him to see a doctor at a city-run health clinic. "He didn't want anything to do with us at first and now he talks to us."
Garcia, who joined HOT three months ago, added that, "His demeanor got nicer and he had more smiles for us over time."
By having a consistent presence in the neighborhood, Garcia said he and Hubbard often see the same individuals, who over time become more willing to engage with them.
"Because they already feel rejected by the rest of the population because everyone ignores them, our role is not to ignore them," he said.
Added Hubbard, "We show them we care."
Thousands of encounters
Since the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District, working with a number of other Castro-based neighborhood groups, launched the Castro Cares initiative in the fall of 2014, outreach workers have had 3,346 encounters with people living on the street. The services were increased from four hours a month to 20 hours a month in April 2015, and the program now has a budget of $260,000.
"These are 2,000-plus engagements with the social service system which probably would not have been made if not for the Castro Cares funded homeless outreach workers," noted the CBD in a recent email about the program.
Over the last two years 448 shelter bed referrals were made, and 216 people received referrals for mental health, medical, or substance abuse services. More than 340 people received assistance with benefits including Social Security, disability services, or food stamps, while 449 people received some other type of assistance.
"There are four or five people we have gotten into permanent housing," said CBD Executive Director Andrea Aiello. "It doesn't mean they are not back on the street during the day, but they have a place to go to at night where they can cook and shower."
The program receives $175,000 from city grants, which runs through June 2018, and the CBD launched a fundraising drive this year to raise $50,000 from residents of the area. The program has also resulted in 26 hours more a week in patrol special police coverage of the Castro, as well as 12 to 15 hours a week in overtime for police officers, most of whom work during the evening hours to assist with issues that arrive from the area's late night bar scene.
Aiello stressed that while Castro Cares has been successful, the program will not result in the end of homelessness in the neighborhood.
"There are real limits to what we can do. Some people think we can just make it all go away," she said. "We can't, and that is not the purpose of Castro Cares to sanitize the Castro."
Castro Merchants President Daniel Bergerac told the B.A.R. that he believes the program has brought greater awareness to the issue of homelessness in the neighborhood. It has had a number of successes, he said, both on a "community-wide and individual level."
"We have made amazing inroads and gotten people into treatment and housing. We have been able to reach out to people," he noted.
The biggest misconception people have had about Castro Cares, said Bergerac, is that homelessness in the area "was all going to go away." And while the extra police presence has helped, Bergerac said, "People thought we were going to have a tremendous amount of SFPD here, but there are limited resources."
The focus of the extra patrols is on addressing quality of life issues, said Bergerac, not on arresting homeless people.
"Homelessness is not a crime, the bad behavior is," he said.
With the data collected from the program, the Castro Cares leadership team is regularly evaluating the results and what changes need to be made so it is more effective, said Aiello. And it hopes the city's new Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing will launch any pilot programs it starts in the Castro.
"Are we really meeting the needs of the people on the street? And is what we are doing the right thing," she said. "Is homeless outreach enough? Or should we try a different strategy?"
Toward the end of their shift last Thursday, Hubbard and Garcia encountered an elderly black man, wearing a heavy black coat and pajama bottoms featuring an Oscar the Grouch adorned in a Santa hat pattern, sleeping in the bulb-out where Market, Laguna and Hermann streets intersect. The gentleman complained his foot hurt due to a deep cut and agreed to wait for them to return with a van so they could take him to a health clinic.
Later that morning Hubbard informed the B.A.R. in an email that they were able to transport the man to a city clinic where he was "being seen by a doctor."
To learn more about Castro Cares, or to donate to the program, visit its website at http://www.castrocares.org.