Noe Valley Voice July-August 2007

'Homeless Connect' Chief Judith Klain Connected First in Noe Valley

By Lorraine Sanders

When Judith Klain arrived in San Francisco in 1978 after hitchhiking her way across the United States from her home in New York, the then 19-year-old had a backpack, $10 to her name, and not much else.

"I didn't know a soul," remembers Klain, whose New York accent remains distinct even after nearly three decades on the West Coast.

Back then, the Meat Market Coffeehouse, which occupied the 24th Street space where Kookez Cafe stands today, was a hangout known for being the sort of place one could duck into and while away the hours. It was there that Klain met a woman who offered her space to sleep in her living room until Klain could find her own digs.

It's a fitting beginning to a life in the City by the Bay for Klain, who now directs the Department of Public Health's Project Homeless Connect, an initiative launched by Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004 to reduce homelessness in San Francisco.

At the heart of Project Homeless Connect are bimonthly events that bring a spectrum of homeless services to a central location such as the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and, most recently, the Southeast Health Center in Bayview­ Hunters Point. The city provides some funding, but Klain says 90 percent of the $4 million annually it would cost to run the program comes from volunteers, corporate sponsors, and in-kind donations.

As for the beneficiaries of the services, most first-timers, Klain says, come for the promise of free food, but they walk away with much more than a square meal.

"People can get done in one day at PHC what it would otherwise take them up to eight months to do," Klain explains, citing the multiple appointments and logistical hassles facing the homeless seeking identification cards, general assistance benefits, food stamps, counseling, and medical care.

At Project Homeless Connect, local businesses, nonprofits, government services, doctors, and thousands of volunteers--many from Noe Valley--offer everything from free dental care to acupuncture, HIV tests to haircuts. But Klain says what many clients appreciate the most is the personal attention and respect they receive from volunteers.

Since its inception, the bi-monthly program has attracted attention. Twenty-six states, 107 U.S. cities, and three countries (Canada, Peru, and Australia) now use Project Homeless Connect as a model for reaching their own homeless populations. In San Francisco alone, 19,000 unique individuals have received services through the program, and 14,000 people have volunteered. This spring, the program was honored with the 2007 Acts of Caring Legacy Award for Excellence and Innovation from the National Association of Counties (NACo) in Washington, D.C.

To see Klain today in the Clipper Street house where she's lived for the past 15 years, you'd never guess she was once without a home. Warm colors fill the comfortable living space that includes the living room, kitchen, and breakfast area, while a small deck offers views out over the neighborhood. Klain's paintings hang on the walls. The sounds of her children--Sofia, 15, and Michael Klain-Chavez, 17--talking with her partner Nikki Mixon and the teenagers' friends, echo down from upstairs.

It's a long way from the uncertain teenager Klain was 30 years ago.

"If my kids ever did what I did, I'd kill them," she says. "I think it was the generosity and compassion I was shown that allowed me to be okay."

During her early years in San Francisco, Klain found work as a carpenter hired to repair the city's cable cars through a federal work-assistance program targeting women and minorities. As one of very few women in her male-dominated field and no stranger to on-the-job harassment, she became interested in helping other women in blue-collar jobs. In 1989, Mayor Art Agnos appointed Klain to work on the Commission on the Status of Women.

"It was my first taste of being able to do advocacy work," Klain recalls.

In later years, she continued to work for the City of San Francisco at the Department of Public Health, where she was employed when Mayor Newsom tapped her to head Project Homeless Connect as part of his overall plan to eradicate homelessness in San Francisco.

"I've been an activist for most of my life, and I've never been involved in a project like this. It's just so inspiring," Klain says.

She admits the job has its painful side. "It's really hard to see in this country, as wealthy as we are, people living in poverty." She also knows Project Homeless Connect and its cadre of dedicated volunteers cannot end homelessness on their own. "Until there's enough housing, we're not going to solve homelessness."

But what keeps Klain going are the hugely successful one-day PHC events. "The compassion in that room, it just vibrates. That's what gives me hope, to see the look on people's faces. It transforms people," says Klain, who is quick to point out that by "people" she means both the homeless and the volunteers who attend.

Klain reflects on the feedback she received from a homeless woman and Vietnam veteran who had been living on the streets for eight months prior to coming to Project Homeless Connect. "For the first time that she could remember, people were looking her in the eye. She felt welcomed back into society," Klain says.

After finding housing assistance, the woman later became a volunteer for the program.

Project Homeless Connect will hold its 18th event on Aug. 29 at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. For more information about volunteering or donating money or services, visit Baseball fans can support Project Homeless Connect by purchasing tickets for the July 24 Giants vs. Atlanta Braves game through the S.F. Connect web site.

One Volunteer's Story

In the early morning mist, hundreds of homeless San Franciscans are lined up outside the Civic Auditorium waiting to enter Project Homeless Connect. Inside, more than a thousand volunteers are poised to offer them dozens of social services under one roof.

Among those awaiting the arrival of homeless clients at their stations is volunteer Joyce Kurtz, a four-year resident of Fair Oaks Street. Kurtz, 62, got interested when she read a story about Project Homeless Connect in the San Francisco Chronicle.

"I was very moved by it. I pulled out my checkbook, but wanted to do more to help people directly instead of just donating," says Kurtz.

Kurtz assists at the Story Table and Photo Project, where clients and volunteers can have their photographs taken and/or their personal stories recorded. The service was conceived by a former client as a dignified way for everyone to be seen and heard on event day.

Kurtz gets the clients' stories recorded with iPods and a recharger that she borrows for the day from her kids and Project Homeless Connect staff.

"I so believe in the Story Project because it's such a unique opportunity to sit and talk with people," says Kurtz. "How did they become homeless? What are their dreams and goals? Have they been there before? Did they get the services they wanted?"

Sitting down and talking also helps sweep away one's misconceptions.

"It's so easy to stereotype people you see on 24th Street," says Kurtz. But at Connect day, "if the volunteers were not wearing T-shirts, in many cases it would be hard to tell them from the clients. You think, 'This woman surely must be a professor at Berkeley.' The clients are really just like us, and here you see their humanity."

Kurtz says most of the clients she has worked with are trying hard to change their lives. "They might say, 'I think I can get in the methadone program. This is the time I'm really going to get my life together.'"

And it is clear to Kurtz that the city is making inroads into the problem of homelessness. "Over a hundred other cities have come here to pattern their own programs after ours. The best thing we are doing is sitting down with people and listening to them, giving them undivided, non-judgmental attention."

The experience can be life-altering for volunteers, too. "At Project Homeless Connect, you can move beyond your comfort zone in a very safe environment. Volunteers come and they wash people's feet and rehabilitate their wheelchairs. You can really stretch your boundaries," Kurtz says.

"Every two months, for a half day or a whole day, you help out on something that seemed hopeless, but in fact is not hopeless at all."