[Hpn] General Assistance Advocacy Project helps when safety net fails

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Thu, 08 Feb 2001 15:01:18 -0700


San Francisco EXAMINER
Thursday  Feb 8, 2001

GAAP helps when safety net fails

General Assistance Advocacy Project was original founded as a class project
by UCSF, Hastings Law School students in 1984. Today it still depends on
Hastings students but now it's a fully, if inadequately, funded nonprofit
agency devoted to helping the down and out deal with life's hassles and city
and state bureaucracies. Staffed primarily by volunteers, GAAP serves more
than 2,300 clients. Annabrook Temple, 28, started out as a Hastings
volunteer, today she runs the entire GAAP program. The phones ring
incessantly and she is frequently interrupted.  Fred Dodsworth: What is

 Annabrook Temple: We are a public benefits advocacy organization. We
primarily work on food stamps and General Assistance. We just got a huge
grant from the California Endowment to start representing people with their
SSI claims.

 We spend a lot of time in confrontation with GA. Our clients come in
here saying they had an appointment at 8 o'clock in the morning, they waited
there until 11, no one called their name, no one told them they were in the
right place so they come here and miss their appointment, then they get

 Q: Are your clients capable of working?

 A: Physically or mentally? Or given the situation that they're in,
capable of working? I would say there are a lot of mental and substance
abuse issues that come with homelessness. I recently saw an onset of
morbidity chart. It said in year one of homelessness only 5 percent of
people have damaging substance abuse or mental health issues. But in year
five, 95 percent have some kind of serious mental and/or substance abuse
problems. I think the substance abuse comes from self-medication -- dealing
with the horrors of street life.

 Also, these people don't have homes or health insurance, they get sick.
In the winter, it's horrifying. We give out blankets but the other form of
"warmth" can often be alcohol. It's hard to distinguish between cause and
effect. People come here at their lowest ebb.

 Q: Do you ever fear that you could become homeless?

 A: It's something I think about a lot. Most of us have a social net
that wouldn't ever let that happen, but all of us get shocked when we talk
to someone here and realize they have a degree from Berkeley. You dig deep
down and you discover that your client was once married to a doctor.
Everybody has these stories.

 Especially in this city it can be pretty easy to lose your job and your
housing in a month. If you don't know anybody then where do you go?

 It's a very interesting and very diverse population that gets lumped
into the rubric of homeless. We forget that there is this hodge-podge both
racially and in terms of background. Where did this huge class of
underprivileged people come from?

 The Coalition on Homelessness did a study two years ago. They estimated
between 11,000 and 16,000 homeless people in San Francisco. The San
Francisco Department of Human Services says 6,000 of County Adult Assistance
Program's clients are "housed" but their definition of "housed" includes
people who are staying in single-room-occupancy hotels. Those people are
kicked out pretty routinely so they don't stay any longer than 30 days and
acquire rights as tenants. Plus the SROs are expensive. To be there every
night adds up to around $450 a month. That's a lot of money especially for
people who are only receiving $305 from GA. Realistically that's another
4,500 people who actually are homeless.

 Then there are people who just fall off the matrix. People who aren't
receiving benefits and don't check into the shelters just aren't counted.
Who knows?

 Q: How many of your clients die each month?

 A: We just had a client die. It was terrible because he'd just gotten a
room at the Cadillac Hotel and he died a week later. He probably died of
complications from diabetes but we think he finally got his place so then he
had a place where he could die. It was really, really bad. Brendan, one of
our volunteers had worked so hard to get him in there, he'd been on the
waiting list for five years...

 People disappear all the time. People who receive their mail here and
come in at least once a week all of a sudden just don't show up anymore.
Often they're in jail, often they're in the hospital, often they just drop
off and we don't know what happened.

 Q: How many of your staff work here full time?

 A: There's only a full time staff of four and the rest are volunteers,
about 20 per semester, mostly from Hastings, I was one myself. My position
as program director was instituted just a year ago. Before it was all
volunteers but with 2,300 clients, the caseload is too much to risk to
academic calendar fluctuations.

 Q: Do you think volunteerism is the answer?

 A: I think we need to start acknowledging that people have a right to
shelter, have a right to education, and a right to meaningful work. Then
there'd be jobs created for people and we wouldn't have to rely on
volunteerism. It worries me to see Bush talking about making money available
to churches to do social services. I don't think the government should be
let off the hook like that. In San Francisco already Glide and St. Anthony's
and all these places bear so much of the burden that the city and county of
San Francisco should be carrying. I really believe there's got to be more
government involvement and not less. Volunteerism is great but it really
should be a governmental responsibility. San Francisco has one of the most
generous benefit programs in the country. As a result of that the pressures
being put on San Francisco at this point are enormous. If there was some
kind of federal program the load would be evened out. Other cities would be
taking care of their homeless.

 Q: Do you feel like you're doing good? Do you ever get depressed?

 A: I think this office attracts people who are able to get off on the
insanity of life. People here have some pretty dark humor. The clients do
and we do, too. It can be really depressing but there're also some great
organizations and great people, especially here in the Tenderloin.

 Someone sent us an anonymous check for $500 and said, "Paint that
place, it's depressing." So we painted it. It was all done by volunteer
painters so there's paint all over the floor. Sister Bernie next door, she
knows everybody, she walked in and said, "Oh, my god, you ruined your
floor." She comes in the next day and says, "So and so wants to give you
linoleum." So there's linoleum here the next day. There's really a great
sense of community amongst all the organizations that care about the
Tenderloin and that care about San Francisco. That's always reassuring.

 Right now I'm loving it, I really, really do. I love the people I work
with and I really love a lot of the clients. It's a great job, I mean
there're a million and one things that have to be done at one time and
nothing's ever going to be done perfectly. And there's always toilets
exploding and craziness happening that I never thought I would be dealing
with when was in law school but it's great. There is a sense of reward at
the end of the day -- that sounds really cheesy, I usually don't think of it
that way. (Giggles uncomfortably.)

E-mail Fred Dodsworth at fdodsworth@sfexaminer.com

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