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A lifeline in a landscape stalked by poverty and the coronavirus

As most of San Francisco remains at a relative standstill to slow the spread of the coronavirus, GLIDE Harm Reduction Case Manager Felanie Castro is behind the wheel, crisscrossing the city seven hours a day.

Piloting GLIDE’s community outreach van, and accompanied by a rotating roster of GLIDE health systems navigators and other Harm Reduction staff (Rita Bagnulo, Ali Lazarus, Jason Norelli, Amy Rodriguez, Amber Sheldon, Mike Thompson), Felanie makes between 20 and 35 stops a day, supporting unhoused San Franciscans for whom social isolation and resource scarcity have only deepened in the context of the current public health emergency.

“Everybody I’m seeing is getting a meal and water, and if they have any SAS [Syringe Access Services] needs, they’re getting that,” explains Felanie during a recent phone conversation.

“I’m also screening people—asking them if they’re having a new cough, experiencing a fever, having shortness of breath. I have a non-contact thermometer that DPH [San Francisco Department of Public Health] gave me. And I’m passing out tents. I think I’ve passed out over 400 tents since the 25th of March. I’m passing out hand sanitizer and hygiene kits. Masks when I get them.”

In practice, mobile outreach is nothing new to Felanie and her Harm Reduction colleagues. GLIDE introduced its customized community outreach van—complete with a phlebotomy chair and other equipment for on-site testing—last year as part of a new program called OPT-IN.

OPT-IN, part of a five-year grant operated in partnership with DPH, is designed to further the reach of GLIDE’s Harm Reduction program in serving the most marginalized populations across San Francisco with successful health interventions for addressing the HIV and Hep C epidemics and other harms among the city’s unhoused residents.

But in the context of a global pandemic—and the necessary scaling back or shuttering of restaurants and most other businesses, all in-person cultural events and many city services—priorities have shifted. More than ever, Felanie and crew act as a literal lifeline to people living an increasingly precarious existence in makeshift encampments and enclaves that fan out from the city center—from SoMa and the Mission to Excelsior, Potrero Hill, Bayshore, Bayview Hunters Point, all the way to the far side of Candlestick Park and beyond to the water’s edge.

“I’ve seen over 2,400 people since the end of March. Distributed over 2,000 meals,” recounts Felanie.

“There are 10 to 15 locations a day that I visit all the time. I’ve been to certain places where they’re saying, ‘Thank you, because you’re the only person coming out here. You’re the only person to ever come out here. And you’re repeatedly coming out here.’”

“The distribution of water and hygiene kits is a critical intervention to prevent disease transmission among persons with no access to running water, such as in the Warehouse district,” adds Harm Reduction Program Manager Daniela Wotke.

In addition to basic necessities and harm reduction services, information has been another valuable offering to help guard the health of people living unhoused.

“I’ve been passing out some literature, too. Little half-page booklets. Dispelling some of the myths that they have,” says Felanie of the people living outside.

“It’s still abstract for a lot of people who are already kind of remote. I’m also giving them the information about MSC South. There are a lot of people who tested positive at MSC South. There are probably people who are positive who were at MSC South and who are out in the community. So physical distancing and having a mask are really things to pay attention to.

“I’m really good with boundaries,” continues Felanie. “I’m wearing my mask; I ask people to keep their distance. So, I lead by example in that respect. Different pockets have different levels of anxiety and stress over this—all coupled with their stress about, ‘Hey, how am I going to get food and water, and basic things to clean myself with, if you don’t come out?’”

To date, no one Felanie has screened for symptoms presented signs that would necessitate further evaluation at SF General. “I haven’t had anybody yet,” notes Felanie, “and I’ve screened maybe 350 people.”

GLIDE Harm Reduction team members Felanie, Amy and Jason with the OPT-IN van on February 6, 2020. (photo: Rob Avila)

Fortunately, regular services like the ones offered from the OPT-IN van, including the basics of food and water and modest shelter, mean many unhoused city residents have the ability to shelter where they are without having to risk venturing into the more congested centers of town.

And, as Felanie makes clear, the outreach is a community effort:

In addition to logistical support from DPH, and the regular SAS outreach conducted by San Francisco AIDS Foundation (another member of the OPT-IN program), GLIDE’s OPT-IN team relies on a network of allies for sourcing such critical supplies as tents (Coalition on Homelessness), hand sanitizer (via homeless rights activist Christin Evans), meals (GLIDE’s Daily Free Meals team, with donations from Gate Gourmet and others), hygiene kits (The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence), and masks (some homemade ones, some from a local drive instigated by District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, to which many generous individuals contributed).

For now, the OPT-IN mobile outreach remains a vital and, for many, a unique line of support as unhoused people across the city weather a season of increased deprivation, uncertainty and risk.

“When you talk about Market Street all the way to the water on the East side, I can’t think of a street that I have not been on,” says Felanie. “There was one or two days when I was between Bayshore and the water all day. I put 50 miles on the van, just in that area. That’s going every single block.”

https://youtu.be/WdwjJV8Gwuw

Saundra Haggerty on GLIDE’s Men In Progress violence-intervention program

Saundra Haggerty is the lead facilitator and case manager for GLIDE’s Men In Progress (MIP) program, a 52-week court-mandated Batterer’s Intervention program that supports men in acquiring the skills they need to work through their anger and change their violent behavior. GLIDE’s MIP is one of the few free programs of its kind in California, and the only free program in the Bay Area. In her reflections, Saundra shares what it is like being a woman in a space aimed at supporting men in unlearning violence, which in many cases has previously been targeted towards women.  

The following is the third installment in our series honoring the vital work of case managers by examining the complexity and compassion that goes into supporting participants in accessing the resources they need in order to improve their relationship with their partners, children, family, friends, community and themselves.

Being a woman in charge of running the Men In Progress program is hard. I facilitate three group sessions every week for men that have been court ordered to attend because of their violence. Each class is about two hours long and has at least 24 men.

As a facilitator I spend a lot of time working on communication. I help men manage real life conflicts and learn how to communicate with their partners. I have a guy in the program right now who is having problems with the mother of his kids. He comes to group and presents a situation and asks, “What could I have done better, Saundra? You are a female so you must understand where she is coming from.”

As a case manager I spend most of my time making sure that the men successfully complete their mandate. This entails identifying any barriers to their completion. I am in frequent contact with parole and probation officers. The court requires a written assessment once a month to report on each participant’s attendance, how they are doing in class and whether we see them taking accountability for their behavior. I spend a lot of time assessing the men on what they are learning and what they feel they need to learn.

We have quite a few men in the program that are homeless, which makes everything so difficult. Many of the men have to bring all their belongings with them to each group multiple times a week. Those who are staying in shelters have a strict timeframe when they have to be back at the shelter location or else they lose their bed for the night, so I write letters to verify that they were in class so that they can get a late pass. In addition to group sessions, I do one-on-one meetings with men who need additional support, whether that is resources or someone to listen to them.

Before this, I worked in GLIDE’s Women’s Center, which dealt with the other side—providing a safe haven for women who have survived domestic violence. Initially, after the experience of supporting women on their road to recovery from violence, working with men who had perpetrated violence was difficult. Just the language used during group can be violent and offensive. I often have to correct participants by saying, “We don’t call women that,” and explain why. Many of the movies that are part of the curriculum, aimed at showing men how damaging their behaviors can be, can really get me in the gut sometimes. Some of them portray women getting beat up and killed. It can be very graphic.

Nevertheless, I believe it is important for everybody to understand that all behavior is learned behavior. These men did not come into this world being violent. Yes, they have done some bad things, but it doesn’t mean that they are bad people.

Many of the men I work with came from abusive childhoods. They learned violence in their homes and were never taught how to manage the rage or anger that followed. Many of the African American men in the program come from single parent households where their mothers were struggling to provide for their families. Their definition of what a man should be is taught in these environments that are far too often violent.

What our program seeks to do is help these men unlearn this type of behavior by understanding where this behavior comes from, where it was learned. We call this “unpacking.” And as we go through this curriculum, at some point the lightbulb goes off. I have heard countless men say, “You’re right, Saundra. I wasn’t born like this.”

I feel honored that this program gives me insight into how men think and why they think the way they do. What I have learned is that these men are also victims in many ways. It feels good working with these men, knowing that by helping them I am also helping those women I used to serve. This work is about healing—healing the family, healing the community and healing themselves. Somebody has to do this work, and who better than a woman?

By Erin Gaede

Isoke Femi on the spiritual roots of African American music and the power of harmony

Music has always played an essential role in resisting oppression and advancing social justice, including at GLIDE. In honor of Women’s History Month, we sat down with Isoke Femi, Maven of Transformative Learning in GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice, to discuss the foundation of music in her life, spirituality, and justice work. Isoke encourages us to listen to Black music with new ears, as a “medicinal power” that got people through the intense trauma of oppression in all its forms. “It is no accident,” says Isoke, “that such music had  potent power to influence and profoundly shape the world.” 

What many people fail to understand is that all Black music is spiritual music. It comes out of an ethos that says you have to be able to create a mood instantly. It is about bringing down the spirit. The questions is: What is the spirit you are trying to bring down? Even if it is love or blues, it is still recognized as spiritual. Love is a spiritual thing. Sex is a spiritual thing. Romance is a spiritual thing. These are experiences that you treat spiritually — music is that spiritual treatment. It’s a remedy. It is naming the problem, it is addressing the problem and it is identifying the energetic field.

I call the music that Africans brought to America, and later evolved, “soul force.” The sorrow of the Negro Spiritual is the sorrow of being enslaved. Music not only names that but elevates the experience of enslavement to something else, to something that is more ethereal, more transcendent. Music can take you deeper into an experience and it can lift you out of it. Black music is masterful at doing both those things.

This is the music I grew up with. Music was central to everyday life. We were members of Church of Christ, so there were no musical instruments. Everything was vocal. The only music was to be brought through the voice. All those sounds. All those swaying bodies. Music was an invitation to be fully present in the body and let the body do what it wanted to do.

 

In my professional life, I use music as a cathartic medicine. Music can say things that words can’t because it bypasses the mental structures that get in the way of certain kinds of communication. We are not all solo performers or commercial musicians, but we realize that music is inextricable to a spiritual experience. The best way to do that is congregational singing, where there is not necessarily any instrument, just voices. Anybody can do that. You don’t have to be able to harmonize, and you don’t have to have a perfect pitch. You can bring your whole soulfulness to it but not need to be super polished.

Every now and then it feels like the universe will drop a few lines into my consciousness that become almost like a mantra or a chant. I use this in facilitating workshops. I use it in rallies. Anytime there is a gathering or a moment in a gathering when something is called for and you feel a little unsure. When there is a need for catharsis, I break out into song.

By Erin Gaede

Reflections of a powerful young voice from the global movement for justice

Bee Ling recently came to GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice as part of the International Research & Exchanges Fellowship (IREX) on tolerance and conflict resolution. Having Bee here with us was a rare and very special opportunity. We learned from her, and we shared with her, as we came to see the Tenderloin and San Francisco through her eyes—and in a global context. Astute, compassionate, kind and courageously dedicated to supporting the most vulnerable members of society, Bee is now a friend and ally for whom we are deeply grateful. Before returning home to Kuala  Lumpur, Bee spoke with us about her perspective on global practices of social exclusion, discussing her plans to set up inclusive initiatives to involve people experiencing homelessness in policy processes and local service responses.

I am from Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where gentrification has been forcing many residents out [onto the streets] and causing displacement. I call it banishment, because my neighbors on the street are being forced to move with nowhere to go.

The government calls this voluntary but the high rent prices and the foreign investment companies that are buying up real estate for wealthy people, many of whom don’t even live in Kuala Lumpur, are pushing people into poverty. These new apartments stay empty most of the year. Officials claim that Kuala Lumpur is empty, but what they mean is there are not a lot of middle-class people living there anymore. The hundreds of migrant workers and homeless people are never mentioned.

The Destitute Persons Act, which was legislated during the British Colonial period in 1872, has been at the core of federal and state strategies for dealing with poverty and homelessness in Malaysia. By this law, government officers have the power to conduct raids on ‘destitute persons’ and detain them in welfare homes.

The government narrative describes this as “rescuing” people but it is [actually] arresting [them]. If you dress well, they will leave you alone. But if you look poor or homeless, they take you to these welfare homes where you have no freedom to leave or access to legal counsel.

There is an economy behind all of this. Private contract companies are paid to clear the streets of poor people and their belongings, just like the sweeps here in San Francisco. The sweeps are costly and ineffective. Most people don’t understand that our tax money is being used to target the poor.

In 2014, officials claimed that the root cause of homelessness is soup kitchens, basically blaming poor people for being homeless. I knew that being poor should not be considered a crime, so it was then that I got involved in working on the issue of homelessness. For the last four years, we have been providing services to the people living on the street as a Coordinator for Kedai Jalanan [“Street Store,” a pop-up shop run by faculty and students from the University of Malaysia]. We provide the urban poor with daily necessities like hygiene supplies and clothing.

 

Volunteers from the University of Malaya help set up racks, organize clothes, and lend a listening ear at Kedai Jalanan’s pop-up free market for those people experiencing homelessness in Kuala Lumpur.

I was a student when I started this work and didn’t realize the complexity of the problem and power of institutionalized racism. We need research to persuade our local city council and statistics to repel the Destitute Persons Act, but they are not easy to attain because the government doesn’t produce these statistics. When I talk to city council members they tell me that we have to focus on the bigger picture. But poor people never become the bigger picture. Every day the homelessness problem grows bigger and bigger, but when will it be seen?

I joined the IREX fellowship in hopes of developing a tri-national plan. Before coming to San Francisco, I was in Japan at a conference brainstorming global movements. Rather than working alone, we must join forces together in a movement towards global justice. That is what I hope to accomplish as part of my fellowship at GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice. I want to connect and combine resources to better understand the global forces that are causing people to suffer.

Since starting my year-long fellowship at IREX, I have realized that the way authorities target the poor in the United States is the same as in Southeast Asia. We don’t have as much freedom and as many resources as people in the United States, but I hope to use everything I have learned to run campaigns that address what we can do together to push back against authoritarianism globally. My goal is to activate a community of homeless people in Kuala Lumpur to be part of organizing and standing up for themselves rather than advocates like me speaking for them.

I think it is time we talk about transitional justice, because we can’t move forward until we heal the historical wounds. For example, in Malaysia, we still can’t talk about communism. There is no narrative from the bottom. I want to record the powerful narratives of the poor to inform middle-class conceptions. Poor people have dreams, too.

By Erin Gaede

Reflections on Client Advocacy, or What Is a Case Manager? (Part 2)

Walk-In Center client advocate Nikki Dove says her role at GLIDE is a constant reminder of how hard life can be. “Working here isn’t easy,” Nikki explains. “It’s not for the faint of heart or cold of heart. You’ve got to have humility. And you’ve got to recognize that not everyone knows how to help themselves, which is why spaces like the Walk-In Center are so important. We help anybody and everybody figure out how to navigate systems for themselves.”

The following reflections from Nikki (lightly edited for publication here) comprise the second installment in our series on the vital but little understood work of case managers. (You can read our first installment here.) What does a case manager do? In this series, we examine and honor the complexity and compassion of case management and client advocacy, here on the front lines of  GLIDE’s efforts to support the wellbeing and self-determination of our community.

We have all been there, navigating a system that we aren’t familiar with. It is irritating and frustrating. Now think about how stressful that would be if your needs were immediate–like shelter.

As a Client Advocate in the Walk-In Center, I spend a lot of time trying to support people in communicating their needs. I hand out tokens for transportation, deliver hygiene kits, and support people with their housing applications.

Because access to housing is so scarce now, I am constantly having conversations with folks who are struggling to adjust to how difficult things are. A lot of people I work with are unhoused for the first time in their life. So I help them with their DMV vouchers and support people in navigating the complicated process towards permanent housing, transitional housing, getting into treatment and finding shelter in the city.

The Walk-In Center is the real starting point for many folks.

Sometimes, in other programs, it feels like the goal is just to push people through or move you on to the next department so that you are not in my face anymore, so you are not my problem anymore. There is a different connection that you get when you meet folks at GLIDE.

I try support each person individually in determining what resources they need to move forward. An important part of this process is figuring out what questions clients need to be asking to avoid being pushed off or running around in circles. I am always trying to make sure that their next step is the right step for each person’s unique circumstances.

But mostly I view my role as seeing people. Folks need to be looked at in a way that their presence is acknowledged. We all go through our lives wanting to make sure that we are leaving some type of stamp or legacy, so someone knows that we were here in the future. Everyone here wants that, too. So making eye contact, asking if they need help with anything, and then listening without judgment is the most important part of my job.

This job has taught me that it is not the people at the bottom that are the problem. Sometimes things just happen. It is not always your fault and your reality is not always chosen. We forget that with this community. I haven’t met anybody that grew up thinking that they want to be unhoused on the streets of San Francisco. There is a lot of trauma [involved] that effects all of us. It is really sad to me the way the finger is often pointed at folks who are experiencing homelessness. There are ways to address this multilevel problem without having to blame the people who are experiencing the problem.

Instead of calling this, “The Homelessness Crisis,” we have to question what is happening with our social services and within our government that is allowing things like this to happen to our neighbors. What is happening within our education system, our homes, our communities? We need to ask, “What happened to you?” in order to create compassionate solutions.

That’s why GLIDE is such an important community, a place where anyone can find connection.

GLIDE offers people the opportunity to be connected through various avenues like Harm Reduction, Recovery services, the Women’s Center, volunteer opportunities, the Meals program, senior social events, Sunday Celebration for spiritual support, holistic support at the Wellness Center. And it doesn’t end there!

People always come back when they are doing well to say thank you and show their appreciation. It can be hard for me to take responsibility and accept their praises because it is work they did. I always remind people that we are here to support but you did the work, you took the necessary steps to move in this direction.

I consider GLIDE to be a supportive space where it is okay for whatever you decide. No matter what, we will be here for you if you need us. So come back and let us know how you are doing. Come back and bring someone else in need of help. Come back if you need support figuring out your next steps. That is why we are here. That is why I am here.

 

By Erin Gaede

Nancy Goh is among GLIDE’s most dedicated volunteers, a loving soul and an inspiring member of this community. Not only is she a regular in GLIDE’s Daily Free Meals program, but she has incorporated raising awareness and support for GLIDE into her passion for running. Below, Nancy reflects on the reciprocal nature of volunteering and the power of community-building through service. 

My first volunteer shift was a Sunday lunch service.

I had just moved from New York City and was looking for something more than just a network in San Francisco, I was looking for community. I had volunteered at soup kitchens before but trying to find a high-impact volunteer opportunity in a big city was always tough when you only had a couple hours a week to contribute. Usually you had to fill out applications and commit to a certain amount of hours per week.

What instantly stood out to me about GLIDE was how easy it was to sign up for a volunteer shift via the online portal, and that you could dedicate one or two hours of your time in the Meals program and serve hundreds of people.

I come from a programs management and operations background, so I appreciate effective processes and good leadership. I was instantly impressed by the lead kitchen staff at GLIDE. They were so engaged and not only made sure everyone knew their role in the cafeteria but that everyone felt that their contributions were of equal importance. When you work in the corporate world for as long as I have, you see a lot of people who don’t love their job because they don’t find purpose in it. GLIDE was the opposite experience. I remember leaving my first volunteer shift heartened and humbled.

The second time I volunteered, Curtis assigned me the position of greeting people at the door and handing them utensils when they first enter the kitchen. It was very impactful for me. I admit that coming into this experience I, like many, had preconceived notions about people experiencing homelessness. But being in that kitchen, in a setting where everyone is considered equal and everyone deserves a delicious meal, deconstructed my prejudices. It was shocking to see the range of people in the meals line. It was then that I became an instant advocate for GLIDE.

I had been running for over ten years when I decided I wanted to run to raise awareness and support for GLIDE. I created a Go Fund Me page in 2019 with a list of all races I would run on behalf of GLIDE. In 2019, I completed two half-marathons and wore my GLIDE hat for each of them.

The more I volunteered at GLIDE, the more I felt a sense of community. It was the highlight of my weekends, walking into GLIDE and saying hello to the staff and volunteers. It brought a new regularity to my life that I didn’t have before. I met people with incredible stories working in the Meals program, many of whom were original recipients of these meals. I built beautiful connections with people I may have never had the pleasure of crossing paths with, like Lee. Lee had recently been released from San Quentin State Prison, where he was a runner in the 1,00 Mile Club. I had recently signed up to run the San Francisco Half Marathon and learned that Lee had too! In the weeks leading up to the marathon, Lee and I built a friendship based on our shared love of running, checking in with each other about how our training was coming along.

This is just one example of the sustainability model behind GLIDE’s Meals program. Access to a good meal can be the foundation for changing one’s livelihood. You start with giving someone something as basic as a meal and, while the impact doesn’t happen over night, the long-term results are the building of a community that continues to serve each other.

Nancy and Lee serving lunch in GLIDE’s Daily Free Meals program.

 

By Erin Gaede

Reflections on the Complexity and Compassion of Case Management

Demarco McCall describes his occupation and its greatest challenge in the same breath: “a Housing Case Manager in a city without housing.” The reality is that case managers at GLIDE must meet the diverse and complex needs of the most vulnerable members of San Francisco’s unhoused community even in the midst of a seemingly intractable housing crisis.  If that seems like a thankless task, it nevertheless remains a critical one, which daily makes a profound difference in the health and wellbeing of many individuals and families across this city. And, as you’ll read below, it takes unusual reserves of heart, strength and creativity.

Demarco’s answer to our question–”What does a case manager do?”–is the first in a series examining and honoring the complexity and compassion of the case manager’s job– a profession that is often mentioned but not necessarily well understood in its details or scope, especially here on the front lines of GLIDE’s essential work in the community. 

Case management in this city is really hard and totally overwhelming. I am a Housing Case Manager but there is no housing. And let’s be honest, GLIDE is rough. I am exposed to so much trauma just walking to and from work–everything I see, everything that comes into my eyes, all the pain I bear witness to. When I first started working here, that was all that was on my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the people I was working with. I’d go home from work still trying to figure out what I can do for this person and that person. I missed out on so much sleep.

I applied to work at GLIDE because I love the values. It’s what makes this organization unique, our ability to meet everybody and anybody where they are at and show them unconditional love. If you visit other organizations, you’ll notice that the building may be neater. But we allow anybody and everybody from the community to come in and feel free to use our bathrooms and feel free to roam our halls because we have an open-door policy.

Even with difficult participants we don’t use a hands-on policy. Instead, we say you can leave the building for one week and come back for a “restorative chat.” That is, a mutually respectful conversation re-establishing the basis for a cooperative relationship that can truly serve the client without taking away from or jeopardizing the help being offered to others. In the meantime, they can still access all our critical services. We will bring them bagged lunches and clean needles and any other supplies they may need.

Some people have a cap on how many participants they case manage, but I don’t. It’s hard but how do you say no? I just took on five new clients today for rental assistance. That puts my caseload at a total of around 30.

The needs of each client vary, but it is always about housing. Filling out housing applications, doing housing searches, knocking on the doors of landlords, signing people up for payee services, filling out rental applications and helping folks with their credit history.

Often clients don’t have the necessary documents to complete housing applications so I help them navigate the system to access social security cards and birth certificates. I am always making copies of all their important documents and keeping all their files organized and up-to-date.

Many of my clients don’t have cell phones, so I am calling property managers, returning calls about potential housing leads, and making appointments at the DMV.

I help folks with their interviewing skills by practicing the questions they might be asked, so that they feel less anxious and more prepared.

Everybody, from all walks of life, needs a case manager. Some people want a case manager because they have been in social services their whole life. Many grew up in juvenile hall or foster care. Now they are 55 and they feel the need for a case manager.

I spend a significant amount of time showing people how to set up an email account and how to use Google Docs to keep track of their rental applications and housing searches. If they are on probation, I collaborate with their probation officer to make sure we are utilizing all the resources available.

A lot of people in this city also have literacy challenges, which they don’t tell you about. I have never had a client tell me, “Hey, I can’t read or write.” Instead they will say, “I need help filling out applications,” or, “I need help looking for housing.” They are worried about saying they can’t read or write because they are afraid of being taken advantage of. They feel scared and vulnerable. So, they seek out a case manager.

Unfortunately, society doesn’t recognize the importance of this critical work. Civil servants, social workers, case managers, early education teachers and care givers are not given the respect they deserve. My job title is Housing Case Manager but I also see my role at GLIDE as smiling at everyone, to share a friendly hello with each person I pass, to cultivate hope in the community by letting people know that it is not as bad as it seems. I see myself in everybody. In the good and the bad, the rich and the poor. That’s me. And that’s why I am a Case Manager at GLIDE.

 

 

 

By Erin Gaede

GLIDE’s Unconditional Legal Clinic

When Gary woke up in a Daly City hospital after suffering a brain hemorrhage, a hospital administrator informed him that his car had been towed. Unable to leave his hospital bed, Gary called the tow company to explain why he was unable to move his car. But despite explaining that he was not only hospitalized but homeless, and that his car was also his residency, Gary was told that his car would not be released until he paid $9,000 in fees.

This was in part due to San Francisco’s 72-hour law, which says that all vehicles parked on city streets can remain parked in the same spot for only three days in a row, at which point the city is permitted to tow the car without notice.

Gary spent the holidays hospitalized, trying to focus on recuperating, while his phone rang incessantly with demands to pay mounting tow costs—costs that were rapidly rising with exorbitant storage fees for every day his car remained impounded. By the time Gary was finally released from the hospital, the tow company had sold his only home at a lien sale, leaving him without any shelter or his belongings.

A civil justice gap

Across the United States, minor civil infractions like Gary’s are derailing the lives of low-income people who lack the savings necessary to cover an unanticipated expense. And few cities provide legal resources to support people who can’t afford a lawyer or other legal costs.

Legal resources are more readily available for some specific areas of the law, such as immigration; and in criminal cases, a defendant has a constitutional right to a court-appointed attorney. But what does a low-income person do in child custody cases, or evictions, or when they return to their parking place to find out their car has been impounded?

Founding the Unconditional Legal Clinic

James Lin, GLIDE’s senior director of mission and spirituality, recalls the day in September 2013 that “a preppy-looking white guy wearing a polo shirt” walked into GLIDE and introduced himself as Charlie.

At the time, Charlie Crompton worked as a lawyer at one the largest law firms in the city, Latham & Watkins. But Charlie was looking to help a clientele that rarely entered the privileged space of his office building. Charlie’s interest in public service led him to the Tenderloin, where he saw the need and the opportunity to integrate legal resources with the wide range of social services offered at GLIDE.

Word quickly spread that there was a trustworthy lawyer at GLIDE who got things done, for free. By leveraging his extensive legal network, Charlie was able to streamline the on-site, no-cost, drop-in legal services that would become the Unconditional Legal Clinic.

The free legal counsel and resources folded perfectly into GLIDE’s holistic approach to services, which provides loving non-judgmental support for people seeking to obtain and maintain the essentials of life—housing, jobs, benefits and family—amid the hardship of poverty and related challenges.

Like other services provided at GLIDE, the Unconditional Legal Clinic was born out of a need in the community, and it grew organically in its commitment to that need.

A new partnership

When, in 2014, Governor Jerry Brown tapped Charlie to be a superior court judge, the future of the Unconditional Legal Clinic seemed uncertain.

But Charlie is a creative problem-solver, and he once again turned to his network for possibilities. Having sat on the board of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR), Charlie went to them with a proposal and ultimately secured the collaboration of LCCR pro bono attorneys, supported in its administrative costs by two years of funding from his old firm of Latham & Watkins.

GLIDE was now a secure bridge for immigrants whose first language might not be English, for refugees who may not know their rights, and for low-income communities of color in need of legal guidance and support, all of whom could benefit from connecting with lawyers committed to protecting and advancing the civil rights of anyone and everyone in need.

Representation and dignity

“It has been very healing,” says Bréyon Austin, who studied Tribal and Criminal Law in Albuquerque before joining LCCR and who for the past year has been working at GLIDE’s Unconditional Legal Clinic. “I grew up homeless and will always feel that I am part of this community. I wanted to use my law degree to support people in the same situations I myself experienced.”

This is the uniquely reciprocal nature of GLIDE’s Legal Clinic: not only does it provide members of the community with the legal services they need, but it also offers lawyers an immersive experience into the reality of impoverished communities in San Francisco, people struggling to navigate through a confusing and often unjust maze of legal barriers.

For low-income people fighting to survive on the fragile footings of poverty, the results of minor violations can be devastating, especially considering how quickly they tend to snowball.

A vehicle tow, for instance, can mean the loss of transportation, or shelter, or both, which can lead to loss of employment as well as the loss of access to education and medical care. Not only is retrieving a car from a tow lot expensive, but it is also incredibly time-consuming. And for each day the car remains impounded, further fees accrue, as in Gary’s case.

In 2018, Gary visited GLIDE’s Unconditional Legal Clinic and connected with an attorney from LCCR, who provided him with the legal assistance and representation he needed to file a claim against the City and the tow company.

The result was justice: The judge ruled that the city should not have towed and sold his vehicle considering his inability to comply with the 72-hour parking law.

Of the more than 200 clients served per year by the clinic, more than half are experiencing homelessness and the majority are people of color over the age of 50.

Bréyon says the most common issues she hears about are City confiscation of personal belongings and housing-related matters. For housed clients, she deals with everything from eviction prevention to landlord harassment and uninhabitable living conditions in apartments infested with rodents and mold, and lacking running water, heat and electricity.

“The work is intense because it is bearing witness to injustice,” admits Bréyon. “But the healing comes from knowing I can help people achieve what they need with the representation and dignity they deserve.”  

Bréyon Austin, Clinic & Pro Bono Coordinator at LCCR

By Erin Gaede

The Unconditional Legal Clinic, a program of GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice, is open on a drop-in basis, Monday and Thursday from 2:00 to 5:00 pm, at GLIDE.

Join us for a special GLIDE Sunday Celebration at GLIDE Church on Sunday, October 27, 2019. We’ll hear from Minister Marvin K. White, Isoke Femi and Rita herself as we celebrate, honor and pay tribute to her work at GLIDE. RSVP and Invite Your Friends!

“You Are GLIDE. I Am GLIDE. Without Exception, We Are All GLIDE.”

After 30‭ ‬years of nonprofit work‭, ‬the last 17‭ ‬years in leadership at GLIDE‭, ‬Executive Director Rita Shimmin has decided to retire‭. ‬Below‭, ‬Rita shares some thoughts about GLIDE and her retirement.

Rita‭, ‬why do you think this is a good time for you to retire‭? ‬

There are a lot of beautiful people here who will take GLIDE forward. I am impressed with and confident in our staff and congregants’ ability to carry on the emotion, spirit, values and good work of GLIDE. GLIDE’s staff and reputation are our most important assets. We are doing a lot that continues the vision of GLIDE as a community of unconditional love and radical inclusivity: the LEAD program, the OPT-IN program, the Leadership Academy, our outreach to women in the local jail, innovations in the Meals program, and new social justice programs led by Rabbi Lezak, to name a few. Our work continues to attract wonderful people like our CEO and President, Karen Hanrahan. The best is yet to come! 

I know the organization is in a good place, and I am ready to open myself to new opportunities. When people hear the word “retire,” they often think that someone is just going to stop doing things. That’s not the case for me. I feel excited about who I am and what will come next. I’m still young. Apparently 75 is still very young. I recently saw a YouTube show about well-known celebrities over the age of 90, and quite a few who had reached 100! So I’m looking into planning my next 30 years.  

With Rev. Cecil Williams in 2013.

How did you first come to GLIDE and what was that like? 

I came to GLIDE as temporary management replacement in May of 2002 for eight weeks. 
I managed the Safety Team, the Meals program and the Walk-In Center. I loved working with the staff, some of whom are still here. At that time, the manager’s office window looked right out on the meal line. I got very excited, listening to the spirit and the energy of the folks talking together in the meal line. I heard wild conversations, and very intelligent, political and philosophical conversations. I got a thought then that I continue to hold: that the people in our lines are the people who will lead us, into the future, into liberation, into everything. Because they are able to see outside of convention—the convention of politics, the convention of reality, the convention of religion. They see and experience outside the boxes that have many of us trapped. I fell in love with the staff and the people we serve. My first experience at GLIDE told me this is a very uniquely exciting place with many possibilities for changing the world.   

“…‬the people in our lines are the people who will lead us‭, ‬into the future‭, ‬into liberation‭, ‬into everything‭…‬‮”

With Felicia Horowitz at SF Pride.

 

How did you end up staying‭ ‬at GLIDE so long‭?

In November of 2002, I joined GLIDE as the Associate Executive Director in charge of programs. I was confused about GLIDE for a while. Was it a church, or a foundation, or programs? At that time, I was responsible for different service centers, representing many different programs and business models—a primary healthcare clinic, a family and childcare center, a 364-day meals program, and an array of social services. And the church, of course, overlapped with many of these activities. Every day was different, and I never had a dull day. When I think of leaving GLIDE now, I have tremendous gratitude for the visions of Jan and Cecil. GLIDE is a playground, a place to have big fun! GLIDE is a platform from which to express your life and your life purpose. 

GLIDE has to be experienced, a place that exists beyond what can just be seen. For me, it’s been a place to stimulate the expansiveness of my soul and mind and heart. It is not a place to be comfortable. There are many opportunities here to feel centered, to feel grounded, to feel joy. But very soon you’ll be uncomfortable for some reason. And those times of discomfort are the times when growth and love happen. My capacity to care and love has grown here. GLIDE will always be with me. I will always be with GLIDE.   

 

With W. Kamau Bell at GLIDE in 2016.

With Minister Marvin K. White at SF Pride 2019.

With Rev. Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani at Cecil’s 90th Birthday, September 2019.

With Rev. Cecil Williams, Karen Hanrahan, Janice Mirikitani and india.arie at GLIDE’s Holiday Jam 2018.

 

We wish Rita much happiness in her future endeavors and are so very grateful for her love and contributions to the success of GLIDE and our community‭! ‬♥

Edna Webster Coleman’s remarkable life in the struggle for social justice

GLIDE’s Annual Fund manager Hallie Brignall spoke recently with Edna Webster, a longtime GLIDE community member and Bay Area educator and activist who has designated a portion of her estate for GLIDE and its work on behalf of the community. In the following account, Hallie offers a brief overview of Edna’s remarkable and very busy life, including her organizing with Rev. Cecil Williams and GLIDE as an extension of the civil rights efforts she pursued in the South. We are deeply grateful for Edna’s lifetime of commitment to justice and compassion for others, and we thank her for letting us share her inspiring story.

Edna Webster grew up in the projects of New Orleans. After graduating high school, she worked for a short while in her cousin’s restaurant and as a babysitter. Feeling unsatisfied, she yearned to do more. Unsure of what new direction to take, she walked down to the Custom House on Canal Street and exclaimed, “I think I want to join the Army.” She passed the test and found herself stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, near St. Louis, Missouri, where she exceled, eventually making Drill Sargent.

During her time in the army, Edna met her husband and earned enough money to pay for college. She enrolled in social studies and history at an historically black college, Southern University, in New Orleans. This led her to teaching in local schools, one of which was the William Frantz Elementary School, where Ruby Bridges integrated.

Beginning in the 1960s, while still in New Orleans, Edna became active in the Civil Rights Movement. She landed in jail three times due to protest actions for integration. At a young age, she and a group of friends participated in lunch-counter protests at Woolworth’s. They’d take their books down to do their homework, a very wholesome and innocent activity, but found themselves forcefully asked to move. They refused. Edna recalls what happened next.

“The server called us the ‘N’ word and threw lemon meringue pie at us before calling the police, who carted us off to jail.” The next day they were bailed out by the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE] and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]. That same day, they went back out on the street to protest for integration at a university in Baton Rouge. The governor shut down the school and the National Guard descended on the campus. The police used canines and water hoses on the protestors before taking them back to jail. Again, they were bailed out by various activist groups.

Edna poses with a large portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during Black History month.

Edna also worked on voter education. She taught older people how to vote at a church located in Uptown, New Orleans. Voting was next to impossible for African Americans in her community and nationwide. “They’d ask us all kinds of crazy questions like, ‘How many jelly beans are in that jar,’ or they’d say, ‘Uh, well, you can’t vote because you haven’t been in your home for six months to a year.’”

At one voting location, she was rifling through her large purse for a pen when someone shouted, “She’s got a gun!” to which she replied, “What gun? What are you talking about?” Security came and searched her bag, but there was nothing there. They resorted to telling her, “Well, you can’t come today!” Edna points out that we’re seeing these types of tricks and intimidation again today when African American try to vote.

During this turbulent time, Edna remembers meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was a guest speaker at the Dr. Rev. Davis’s church in New Orleans. “He was a dynamite speaker and was very impressive, Edna remembers. “He spoke about continuing the fight against injustice. We were all students in our early 20s who were on the frontline, fighting for the cause.”

Edna’s family began putting down roots in San Francisco in the 1940s, when her grandparents and her aunt came out for jobs at the Hunter’s Point and Kaiser shipyards. Her family owned a home in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood and were doing well. After her father passed away in 1967, Edna and her mother moved to San Francisco. She recalls thinking, “Boy, I’m going to California.”

After she arrived, she found herself protesting again. “When is this going to stop? I thought I was coming to freedom and that it would be different out here. There were protests against the Vietnam War and protests at San Francisco State University [to create Ethnic Studies programs].” The SFSU Student Strike was especially violent. The president of SFSU, S. I. Hayakawa, called in the police to restore control. “The people got beaten up brutally by mounted police swinging their billy clubs.”

“And many jobs in San Francisco weren’t open to black people, not until the 1970s. I remember protesting MUNI for not hiring black drivers.”

As Edna found herself getting involved in local activism, one name came up repeatedly: Cecil Williams.

“When I got here, that’s when I heard a lot about Cecil because he was very active,” recalls Edna. “He led a lot of protests, would speak at a lot of different places and had a lot of good programs for the people. He got people to march against the Vietnam War.”

At one event, she remembers Cecil leading people to the Bill Graham Civic Center, where GLIDE’s Ensemble performed.

“When they wanted to close down the Charles Drew School in Bayview [Hunter’s Point],” she further recalls, “he got a group of his members and they came out there to protest.” The protests were successful, and the school is there to this day.

Edna not only attended Cecil’s protests, she also volunteered during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Sometimes, she would even bring her students and their parents. She also attended Celebration. GLIDE was Edna’s first church when she came out to California. “I went to the church and I really enjoyed the services. The choir, mingling with the people—everyone is very friendly.”

Edna was equally ambitious about her education and career. While serving in the Presidio military reserves and working at Head Start, she was also busy earning her California credentials as a teaching and reading specialist along with a master’s degree. She then embarked on a 50-year career in the San Francisco public school system.

Edna teaches 5th graders in San Francisco public schools.

Eventually, Edna decided that she wanted to visit the places she’d been teaching about. As a result, she has traveled all over the United States and to several countries. She fondly remembers visiting Nubian villages in Ethiopia; Archbishop Tutu’s church in South Africa; Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell on Robben Island; Gorée Island in Senegal, which was a major slave-trading location; the village of Juffure in Gambia, featured in Alex Haley’s famous novel Roots, where she met an ancestor of Kunte Kinte named Binte Kunte; a Malawi village in South Africa, where she volunteered as an English teacher; W.E.B. Du Bois’s burial site in Ghana; and Cuba to tour their public-school system.

Edna on the Island of Gorée in Senegal, which was one of the key stopovers in the slave trade since the 15th Century. It is now a world heritage site and pilgrimage destination for the African diaspora.

In the early 1980s, the San Francisco Unified School District laid off 500 teachers. Edna was one of the first teachers to be let go. She went down to the Federal building on Golden Gate Avenue and filled out an application to be an Educational Specialist. She was hired as the director of a school at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Eventually, San Francisco Unified rehired most of the teachers and she returned to San Francisco.

In 2002, Edna retired—sort of. Over the following decade or more, she worked for the San Francisco Unified School District’s after-school program; at City College, in their GED program; and as a consultant for new teachers. As you might imagine, Edna has received many awards for her stellar career, including “Teacher of the Year” and “Unsung Hero.” She continues to volunteer in after-school programs in Richmond to help kids excel.

Edna surrounded by her 5th grade students from Commodore Sloat School.

Edna admires the variety of GLIDE’s programs helping homeless individuals and low-income families—programs offering housing assistance, support for women who have survived abuse, and for children in need of daycare and after-school programming. “Cecil did a lot to help the community,” says Edna. “That’s what you really have to look at. Somebody that’s doing something positive.”

In 2018, Edna committed to making a legacy gift to GLIDE in her estate plans.

“You never know where you’re going to need,” she explains. “I got help when I needed it, and I’m in a position now to give back. You give back because you want to see these young kids make it.”

In addition to her generous bequest, Edna offers future generations an inspiring example of a life lived in the service of social justice, education and solidarity with others. And for the younger generations of today, both activists and those who haven’t joined them yet, Edna has this message:

“People ought to protest again, just like in the ’60s. They should keep it going. If you go to sleep on this and are passive, what’s going to happen? They are going to take away what you have gained. That’s the way it goes. We had to fight to get what we got. Young people are going to have to get out and keep it going. They need to keep things moving and not give up.”

Cape of Good Hope, Capetown, South Africa.