When I first moved to San Francisco, I was shocked by how many people were living on the streets. We’re in one of the richest cities in the world, I was appalled that we couldn’t do a better job helping them. I wanted to do something, but it was frustratingly hard to figure out ways that would be effective in doing more than just salving my conscience. I even attended a few “Homeless Innovation” meetups, but from talking to the people who worked in the trenches it was clear that new technology wasn’t the solution. I did discover some non-profits doing important work through the group though, like the Lava Mae shower bus project, and At the Crossroads.
Rob Gitin, the co-founder of the group, gave a short presentation about what ATC did, and it made a lot of sense to me. For seventeen years groups of staff members have walked the Tenderloin and Mission districts at night, talking to young homeless people and handing out basic necessities like toothbrushes, snacks, and clothes. There’s no agenda, the goal is just to make contact with people, and start a conversation. As trust grows they can get informal counseling on the spot, get practical advice about connecting with other services that are available, and much more, but what most impressed me was ATC’s focus on just listening.
I know from my own life that just feeling like you’re being heard can make a massive difference, and unlike a lot of non-profit program the recipients are in control. They’re not being pushed down prescribed programs administered from above, it’s a grass-roots approach that lets them choose what help they need, and when, without judgment, delays, and paperwork.
I’ve stayed involved with ATC since then, trying to help them as a donor (most recently with a boost from Google’s generous gift-matching program). One of the perks has been getting the newsletter every few months, which is simple, but beautifully written, and often very moving as they focus on the stories of the clients. You can view the latest issue here, and what really struck me this time was how Rob distilled the group’s philosophy on helping people in his editorial:
It took me 10 years of doing this work before I realized there was no better topic to discuss than relationships. Knowing how to build and sustain healthy relationships, and how to navigate difficult ones, is the single most important tool our youth can develop that will empower them to build the lives they want. It can have a greater impact on their long-term stability than getting into housing, going back to school, or finding work.
Our clients can get a job, but if they don’t know how to deal with a harsh boss, they will quit or get fired. They can find a room in an apartment or in subsidized housing, but if they can’t navigate roommate conflicts or deal with a case manager they don’t like, they will lose their housing. Furthermore, if they don’t have a strong, supportive community, losing a job or housing will send them right back to the streets.
Stable, long-term relationships are the building blocks upon which our youth create healthy and fulfilling lives. They also feed the heart and the soul. Care without condition nurtures hope, which is often in short supply for our youth. For many, we are the first people to reflect back what is special about them, and who actually see them for all that they are. Hope is a prerequisite for change, and it is wonderful to get to instill it.
It’s this kind of practical, humane wisdom that makes me happy that ATC exists, and is out there night after night helping people. If you’re concerned about homelessness in San Francisco, but you’ve felt lost trying to find a practical way to help, I encourage you to check out what ATC does, and all the different ways you can get involved. It’s not a magic solution to all the pain out there, but I really see them making a difference, one person at a time.