Helping Hands: Nonprofit aims to keep SF disabled from being 'outsourced'

Helping Hands

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a five-part series on the state of nonprofit organizations and how they navigate a city that is experiencing a historic economic boom, housing crisis and widening income gap.

Sunday: The Arc

Today: Independent Living Resource Center

Tuesday: AIDS Legal Referral Panel

Wednesday: Real Options for City Kids

Sunday: Compass Family Services

Returning home from Iraq in 1991 with post-traumatic stress disorder and the mysterious Gulf War syndrome, David Fish did his best to reintegrate into civilian life. He used his military training as a medic to work as a nurse at several jobs, before the disabilities slowly took over his life and eventually turned him semi-homeless and couch-surfing with the thousands of others squeaking by without a stable home in San Francisco.

“I worked for 17 years until I got to the point where my symptoms were so bad that I couldn’t leave the house,” said Fish, adding that some veterans often have a hard time admitting they need help. “The military sort of programs you inside of a machine and teaches you not to complain. It teaches you to complete the mission and not necessarily seek help for yourself.”

Fish said he and other veterans in The City consider the Veterans Affairs facility on San Francisco’s far west side to be difficult and sometimes restrictive, so he connected with a South of Market nonprofit called the Independent Living Resource Center, which seeks to help adults with physical disabilities live successfully in the nation’s priciest housing market.

Fish now runs a small art class at the nonprofit’s Howard Street headquarters — the organization’s relatively new home among The City’s tech industry resurgence. But even as the formerly hard-luck neighborhood bustles anew with commercial activity and condo complexes, organization Executive Director Jessie Lorenz is finding her job more difficult than before the boom began about five years ago.

“Even though there’s a lot of housing construction in The City, a lot of that housing isn’t going to be affordable to people who are on Social Security,” said Lorenz — an accomplished athlete from the U.S. team in the Paralympics — who runs the nonprofit, despite being blind.

Like many other nonprofits that deal with housing issues for clients, Lorenz is discovering that affordable options are now found only in the East Bay.

“It’s like we’re outsourcing,” Lorenz said. “We had a 93-year-old woman who had lived here all her life. And it might not sound like a big deal to say, ‘Oh, they had to go to the East Bay,’ but think about the support systems that they develop in their neighborhood over a lifetime.”

While the Independent Living Resource Center maintains one-on-one relationships with about 500 clients with the goal of keeping them living independently in their own homes, Lorenz said the nonprofit is increasingly moving toward a support group model in which individuals can meet to share resources and form a sense of community.

Private funding is easier to find with the organization’s new location, but Lorenz is miffed with the state of funding from California and the federal government, especially if San Francisco’s tech boom ends up being short-lived as it was in its previous iteration in the late 1990s.

“We are actively trying to court the technology industry,” Lorenz said, mentioning that Yahoo and other companies are interested in testing products with hearing and visually impaired clients. “And that’s the kind of relationship that benefits the company, and it’s also empowering everyone with a disability that gets to come in and tell Yahoo how to do it better.”

Despite affordability issues, Lorenz said the tech industry’s positive impact could be in the tools it can create for those living with disabilities.

“Components of disability have been eliminating because of technology, and there are all kinds of strategic partnerships that can happen,” she said.

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