To Solve Homelessness: Understand, Dignify, Do

The world is before you, and you need not take it or leave it as you came in.
— James Baldwin
Photo Credit: Jessica Sabogal

Photo Credit: Jessica Sabogal

As I sit at my desk in the HandUp office, I look out the window and down onto an all too familiar scene. It’s 5 pm and two people are lying on the ground, seeking sleep on the cold, hard sidewalk, where James Baldwin’s poignant quote is painted on the brick wall above them. A bag stuffed with clothes is their shared pillow, their items are gathered at their feet. This bustling alley between Mission and Market, like many public spaces in the Bay Area, is a momentary resting place for the weary, a claiming of some tiny moment of peace in a painful struggle. On the surface it seems San Francisco has become all too comfortable with alleys like this across the city.

Symptoms of the systemic failure that is homelessness, like this alley, are found at every turn: discarded needles and empty bottles, tent communities under every highway overpass, shelter lists over 1,000 people deep every single night, thousands of lives broken. As these symptoms overwhelm our city , the story most of us form is that San Francisco’s homelessness issue is uncontrollable. My colleagues and I at HandUp, however, feel there’s a different story to tell, a crucial reframe that shows you that tangible change is happening right now, and that you can be a part of it. This is not an intractable crisis, it is a fixable challenge with proven solutions. It is a narrative we can all find our place for impact in as fellow citizens of San Francisco. We must see through the crisis to the heart of homelessness.

Photo Credit: Rachel Heydemann

Photo Credit: Rachel Heydemann

Since June 2015 I’ve dedicated myself to the work of unraveling the issue that is homelessness, when I first entered this space as a volunteer upon quitting my job at Google. Working at Google was a huge privilege, and I am proud of both my time there and the company itself, but like many tech employees, my relationship to the city became one of leisure. My identities as engaged citizen or active community member were slowly eroded. There simply wasn’t time. For the last 2 years I’ve had the opportunity to partner with incredible organizations that have taught me the depth and breadth of this issue. I’ve become a full-time independent nonprofit consultant committed to affordability and homelessness.  I’m not an expert but working toward a more equitable world is my path and advocating for this issue, alongside my partners at HandUp, is important.

HandUp Outreach 2015-186.jpg

The Bay attracts brilliant minds, explosive wealth, and deep empathy, and we can leverage this to solve one of the messiest, most complicated systemic issues of our time. What I’ve found in my 2 years of investment in this issue is that most of us simply don’t know what to do. Despite an obvious desire for resolution we find ourselves caught between apathy to overwhelm. This is why we must shift the story, and unpack the complexity. Change is happening right now and we have the power to magnify it. Our region has a rich history of progressive values and fearless innovation, and we are being called upon to uphold our heritage.

Photo Credit: Rachel Heydemann

Photo Credit: Rachel Heydemann

We won’t explain this perfectly or answer every question, but over the next month we aim to break down the complex pieces of this intersectional problem. In our series we’ll feature organizations tackling this issue, share resources from experts, highlight proven solutions, and show you how you can make a personal impact right now in a way that’s clear, and empowering. This is our work to do, as a community. Together, we can end homelessness.

Starting today, follow our #UnderstandDignifyDo Series @HandUp on Twitter and Facebook, and follow me @heyrachelb to stay tuned, share questions, learn more, and take action.