Driving through Contra Costa County, it’s impossible not to notice the staggering number of people experiencing homelessness. Whether it be the sight of tents dotting the highways, a person using drugs in broad daylight, or someone in a severe mental health crisis yelling to themselves in the street, it leaves many of us wondering, “How does someone get to that point? What we can do to help?”
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, released a study identifying the causes of homelessness. They identified housing costs, mental illness, and addiction as some of the main drivers of homelessness. While new resources are being implemented to tackle them, the solutions don’t seem to be readily available. What can one person do to help? St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) is leading the way by providing compassion and assistance. There is help available for many people who are living on the streets, but much of it requires they know where it is and how to access it. SVdP hosts a daytime homeless shelter at our SVdP Family Resource Center in Pittsburg, in partnership with Winter Nights. SVdP distributes $1.8 million each year to families in need, in an effort to help families stay in their homes.
“People on the street drift around like tumbleweeds. They bounce around, unnoticed or avoided, until they brush up against something and get stuck,” Stephen Krank, SVdP Vincentian Services Manager said. “At SVdP, we’re lucky enough to be able to help people when they brush up against us. It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding. The alternative isn’t an option. It isn’t harm reduction to let someone suffer on the street.”
For people experiencing homelessness due to mental health or substance abuse issues, the help available requires that they recognize they have a problem, and be capable of asking for help.
“You can end up in a Catch-22 situation if you’re on the street due to mental health issues,” Stephen said.
“There’s help available, but if you’re mental illness is so severe that you can’t recognize you need help, it can be almost impossible to get any.”
If someone experiencing homelessness needs help, their best course of action is to call 211 to be connected to services that might be able to help them. This requires access to a phone, and be in stable enough condition to stay put while the County’s homeless response team responds. Even then, the amount of help received may be limited due to lack of shelter availability.
Victor Reynoso is all smiles when he visits the Free Dining Room at St. Vincent de Paul – a partnership with Loaves and Fishes of Contra Costa. He visits the free dining room daily to receive a hot meal, and he stops by the SVdP Emergency Food Pantry for snacks and hygiene items. Victor is always kind and thankful when he receives anything. Victor currently wears a medical wrist band from a recent hospital visit. Victor is living on the streets in the middle of a mental health crisis.
“I needed to see a doctor for medicine,” Victor said. “My body hurts because I did drugs before, and I hear voices and noises in my head that I need medicine for.”
Victor said he was born and raised in Pittsburg. He said he graduated from high school in Pittsburg in 2002. It can be hard to get a lot of detail about Victor’s life from him, he has a hard time conveying things, but he has no problem telling you how thankful he is.
“I get food at SVdP, everyone is really nice,” Victor said. “They’re really funny, they make me smile a lot.”
For Victor, SVdP represents a stable environment where he can receive food regularly, as well as clothing and hygiene items so he can care for himself while on the street. SVdP also offers the Free Hot Shower Program on Saturdays, a partnership with The Bay Church, providing homeless people a hot shower and new undergarments and a fresh set of clothing. Help is available for Victor, but to access that help requires Victor to personally ask for it, something he may not be capable of doing.
Victor is but one of many faces SVdP volunteers see every day. Emotionally, it can be hard to see someone like Victor out on the street, but it can also be very rewarding to be able to help people like him maintain a level of comfort and dignity while they are struggling with homelessness. Even though many experiencing homelessness are currently finding it difficult to find a place off the streets, when they come to SVdP they are able to receive help, love and understanding.
“As volunteers, we can’t solve every one’s homelessness or mental health problems,” Stephen said. “What we can do is to help lessen the suffering of the most vulnerable. People like Victor need help, and we shouldn’t condemn them to carry this cross alone.”
We will continue to advocate on Victor’s behalf to connect him to a permanent home and the help he needs.