Newsletter | May/Jun 2006

North Beach Citizens: A Neighborhood Model to End Homelessness

by Janet Crane
Six years ago, Francis Ford Coppola and friends met to develop his idea: how North Beach should care for its homeless neighbors.

Walking to his office, Francis began to recognize the men and women sleeping in Washington Square and panhandling on Columbus Avenue. He thought that the neighborhood could support the homeless in regaining control of their lives and finding housing.

After a year of strategizing, North Beach Citizens (NBC) was founded, an executive director hired, a small office rented near the center of North Beach and a group of volunteers mobilized. NBC's motto: helping the homeless help themselves, one person at a time.

In 2004 I was invited to join the Board of Directors. Having designed a homeless shelter and transitional housing for 60 women for the St. Anthony Foundation, and having volunteered in their dining room, I had spent time with their homeless clients. But it was exciting to tackle these problems in a more personal, neighborhood based setting. NBC's concept is to work one on one with each "citizen" who is willing to become a member. NBC will help each person access whatever services or resources they need, be it government benefits, id cards, health care, clothing, showers, contacts with family, detox programs and, most importantly of all, housing.

Each citizen's path to homelessness is unique but there are common themes. The average age is 40's, 50's and older. More than 3/4 of members are men. Mental health problems are the most common cause, followed by drugs and alcohol. Multiple personal misfortunes – illness, loss of family or a job can land people on the streets. The city provides many resources to help these people, but managing the process is a challenge for the housed and healthy, never mind the homeless.

NBC's 1200 s.f. storefront office is a single large open space, with a private office for the executive director, a restroom and a utility sink where members often wash. Hot coffee and a crock-pot of stew are always available, as are emergency stocks of food and clothes. A small patio out back offers modest gardening opportunities. An 800 phone number allows messages to be sent and received; there are three donated new computers to provide internet access, letter and resume writing, and basic training.

The office is open to all members mornings from 9-12 Monday to Friday. In the afternoons, the executive director and her now full-time assistant work one on one with the citizens, help them with paperwork, accompany them to appointments, advocate for them with government agencies, and help them progress to their goals.

The success stories are heartwarming. Masa, one of the first citizens, Japanese born, became drug addicted. Francis offered him a sandwich one day as Masa sat in Washington Square and suggested he drop by NBC. After many months of recovery, Masa is now clean, housed, and attends San Francisco State University. He mentors other citizens and is a valuable volunteer.

When I first met Ray, I thought he was a new board member. He lives in the new public housing "North Beach Place" and attends school. But four months before I met him he lived under the 280 freeway for seven years. He was mugged in Berkeley, suffered brain damage, lost his job and had no family.

Not all stories end so well. Moses was a drug addict with serious depression. He was stabilized for periods and housed in SRO hotels, but those hotels have no support services. He jumped out of a window and was in a coma for many months in Laguna Honda Hospital. He is now out of a coma but will never be able to care for himself.

With the help of a highly productive board of 12 and many volunteers, NBC has found permanent housing for 50 people in the last 2 years, saving the city literally two million dollars in the emergency services that normally are the services of last resort for the homeless. NBC's annual budget is $275,000, raised entirely from private donations.

NBC is an inspiring model and two neighborhoods are considering opening comparable centers. Working on these issues may not be architecture in the traditional sense but it has everything to do with creating homes.

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