The Most Innovative Homeless Service You’ve Never Heard Of

SAN FRANCISCO, California — Say you’re newly homeless and you set out on Monday to run a single errand: get a discount train pass. You fork over $2 for the half-hour bus ride to get down to the San Francisco Mutual Transportation Agency office in order to apply. Another 30 minutes waiting in the lobby. When your name is finally called, the meeting ends after two minutes because you don’t have an ID. So you hop back on the bus, out another $2, and head over to the County Clerk’s office. But because you didn’t bring a proof of residency document from a local shelter, you can’t get an ID. By this time it’s nearly 4:00pm, the office will be closing soon, and you’re out enough money for a sandwich.

Indeed, when you don’t have much money, the path for any errand is fraught with pitfalls.

Criss-crossing town on a bus is neither cheap nor quick. Agencies can have weird hours, and many homeless people don’t have access to the Internet to see what time they close. What if you forgot a document? Some places won’t take you without an appointment, while others need you to come back for a follow-up next week. And even once you’ve finally secured an ID, a bus pass, and other bare minimums, your bag may get stolen one night, and you have to repeat the entire process.

These are the little inconveniences that can make it extraordinarily difficult for a homeless person to satisfy a single need. And there are so many others besides a bus pass: a shelter bed, a spot on the low-income housing waiting list, health care, a haircut, food. All this time spent trying to satisfy your basic needs is time not spent at work or in school.

But an innovative program from San Francisco is changing the game with a simple idea: bring all the service providers under one roof for an all-day fair.

Project Homeless Connect (PHC) began in 2004 under then-Mayor Gavin Newsom. If someone doesn’t have an ID for a bus pass, she doesn’t have to schlep across town to get one and come back tomorrow, because the DMV has a booth set up at the event. She doesn’t need to sign up for an appointment with a doctor or optometrist or dentist weeks in advance; she can walk up and be seen immediately. It’s a one-stop homeless shop, and it’s helped over 70,000 people in San Francisco alone over the last decade.

ThinkProgress spoke with Executive Director Kara Zordel about PHC at the inaugural LGBTQ-oriented event this month. A stylish 39-year-old with infectious enthusiasm, Zordel has run PHC, which is held five times per year and typically assists 2,000 people, for the past three years. She singled out IDs, haircuts, eyeglasses, and dental care as the biggest needs for guests.

Not only do homeless individuals benefit, but the city benefits financially as well. For instance, “we save a lot of money in emergency room costs by just doing preventive care and on-site care,” noted Zordel. Each event costs approximately $20,000, or $20 per attendee for everything from medical care to ID services to food and more.

One 18-year-old girl arrived at a recent PHC with no teeth. She wanted to work and had put in applications at fast food restaurants, but was always turned down because of her appearance. “She’s gone through rehab, she’s done everything she needs to do, but she’s still being blocked by the lack of teeth,” Zordel recounted. But when the girl showed up at PHC, they were able to outfit her with dentures, a service unavailable anywhere else in the city for homeless people. “By being able to give her teeth, she’s now in school, she’s working, it’s changed her life entirely because it’s opened up those doors.”

Dental care provided at Project Homeless Connect.
Dental care provided at Project Homeless Connect.

One attendee ThinkProgress spoke with, a 36-year-old individual named David who had been homeless more than half his life, was grateful he could get a tune-up at the wheelchair repair station. He also said he had undiagnosed mental issues that he was hoping to get help with. Another man, Paul, was able to sign up for health insurance after trying and failing on multiple occasions at city agencies in the past.

Not every booth provided bare necessities. A few offered the types of services that people with more money take for granted as regular aspects of a dignified life. These included a photographer to take professional portraits of guests (see examples here) and a massage booth.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee (D) speaks with attendees at Project Homeless Connect on October 17, 2013.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee (D) speaks with attendees at Project Homeless Connect on October 17, 2013.

PHC is supported through a mix of public and private funding. The San Francisco Department of Public Health pays for PHC staff salaries, while funds for the actual events are raised from the community.

Helping the whole process run smoothly were hundreds of volunteers. Arjan Bains, an undergraduate student at University of California, Berkeley, was volunteering for the third time. “As opposed to other organizations where you’re just giving food, this one offers a large breadth of services to homeless people,” he explained.

Zordel repeatedly touted the community aspect of the volunteer base. More than 23,000 people have volunteered since 2004, fully 1 in 16 San Franciscans. Some are students from nearby beauty colleges or nursing schools, but many just hear about it from their friends and decided to join.

Guests enjoying a massage.
Guests enjoying a massage.

PHC’s success is clear in the number of other cities that have adopted the model. Since its inception, PHC has been mimicked in 264 cities, from Baltimore to Denver to Portland. Even cities outside the United States have begun using the PHC model, including Perth and Melbourne. In fact, the model was so successful right off the bat that it was soon adopted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a “best practice” for cities addressing homelessness.

It continues to spread, largely through media and word of mouth. Elysse Lane, Director of Operations at PHC, told ThinkProgress that Kansas City is the latest municipality to get in touch and see how they can begin their own version.

To be sure, the PHC model won’t end homelessness. It’s not a panacea. But it can make homeless people’s already difficult lives a bit easier, whether its providing dentures that will help them get a job or simply massaging out their everyday stress. And it helps a city not only take better care of its most vulnerable people, but do so in a cost-effective way. Given all its benefits, it’s surprising that some cities with major homeless populations like Washington D.C. have yet to replicate the PHC model.