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Ken Garcia: Project Homeless Connect becoming invaluable city asset

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The best one-stop shop in San Francisco can’t be found in a department store, a big-box warehouse or even a shopping mall — just a drab gray building with a ridiculously high ceiling. What makes it so special is that almost everything in it is free — including the services of the 1,000-plus customer service reps who volunteer for the privilege of being there.

As we celebrate The City’s historic hardship this week, we should take into account that the same spirit that helped tens of thousands of instant refugees survive a monstrous disaster is alive and well in the city of St. Francis. The evidence was on rousing display recently when hordes of students, parents, seniors and company employees descended on Bill Graham Civic Auditorium with the singular desire to do something for people in need.

It’s called Project Homeless Connect, a simple but brilliant concept that matches The City’s big-hearted citizens with its poorest. It is one of the great new programs on tap in San Francisco, and it has proved so successful that officials from cities across America are pouring into town to copy it for themselves.

What started as a relatively small band of bureaucrats reaching out to San Francisco’s homeless populace in a direct intervention program on the streets of the Tenderloin in October 2004 has grown into a giant bimonthly gathering in the Civic Center. Last week,more than 1,300 people showed up for a 9 a.m. call to provide services for the poor — an impressive outpouring that filled the giant auditorium floor for the better part of six hours.

The program is designed to provide every conceivable service that a homeless person could need — counseling, medical treatment, benefits information, identification cards, even a portable library. The people who lined up around the block to get clothes or food or inquire about available housing also found that they could get free phone calls, dental care, an eye exam, glasses or even have their wheelchair repaired. Or they could just sip coffee in an adjoining café and listen to live music.

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It’s impressive. It’s inspiring. It’s big.

“Almost everything that you could possibly need is here in one room,” said Alex Tourk, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s deputy chief of staff, who heads the project. “When we started, we were just looking for a way to engage people. And what we discovered was that these people on the street weren’t resistant to getting services — they just didn’t know how or where to go.”

So, after some trial and much error, the Mayor’s Office figured out that the best way to get everybody on the same page was to get everybody under one tent. And 250 volunteers became 500. And the 500 became 1,000. Tourk said every time The City sponsors a Project Homeless Connect program now, they break another attendance record. Last week marked the 10th installment, and so far 15,000 volunteers have turned out to provide services for more than 8,000 homeless San Franciscans.

When President Bush’s homeless czar, Philip Mangano, visited last year to view The City’s initiative, he called the program “unprecedented” and said it should be the model for other cities around the country. Apparently, some officials took notice, because 32 other cities have adopted similar “connect” programs now — the latest being the high-rolling town of Las Vegas.

It’s caught on with a number of major companies and small businesses that have donated services, equipment and volunteer time. Colleges and high schools are sending scores of students. There was enough energy in the hall by the time Tourk finished his pep speech to the masses that people were nearly running to staff the tables on the floor.

“Every time you do this, you end up leaving a little piece of your heart here,” said Connie Shanahan, an interior designer who is working with private companies to build support.

The program has flourished to the point that Newsom wants to start “San Francisco Connect,” an umbrella organization that will direct similar volunteer efforts to address other pressing issues in The City. So let me add my small part to this growing populist movement by encouraging those who haven’t witnessed it to come out to one of the connect programs at Civic Auditorium and see firsthand what a relatively small volunteer army can do in one day — let alone a year.

Whether it’s working with the schools, cleaning neighborhood parks, painting out graffiti or lending a helping hand to address chronic homelessness, few things fill the gaps in bureaucratic stillness better than the spirit of volunteerism.

It’s hardly a revolutionary idea, but as someone who is paid to be a public skeptic, I can tell you it sure beats complaining.</p>

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