Six times a year, the Justice & Diversity Center (JDC) participates in the city’s Project Homeless Connect (PHC), an event that provides over 2,000 homeless residents with food, clothing, health, social, and legal services in one place.
Since PHC began in 2005, JDC has provided free legal advice and referrals, and help getting replacement California identification cards. This month, JDC features, and thanks, several regular volunteers at our PHC clinics.
What do you find rewarding about volunteering at PHC?
Peter Burns (PB): Being able to have an immediate and direct positive impact on hundreds of underserved clients each time.
Carol Johns (CJ): Connecting with people I don’t usually meet as a patent lawyer, and knowing that we’re all pretty much the same. It’s also very rewarding to meet other volunteers and learn about services available in other areas.
Vilaska Nguyen (VN): Hearing client stories; they’re all so powerful and inspiring. The individuals I’ve had the privilege of meeting have overcome so much adversity simply by maintaining hope.
Rachel Williams (RW): I am constantly inspired by the volunteers from across the city who fill the auditorium and treat clients with such respect and care. It is magical to be a part of that collective act of service. And I love it when we are able to find a concrete solution to a client’s problem and know that we are taking something off the long list of hardships that client is facing.
What makes PHC unique from other volunteer opportunities?
PB: PHC gives volunteers the opportunity to interact directly with those in our society in the greatest need of help. A day volunteering at PHC quickly puts all of our day-to-day challenges into perspective.
CJ: PHC is somewhat unpredictable and unstructured. Services are offered to all comers and one never knows who will come in and the stories they will bring. It is also just so basic and decent. The lawyers and doctors on-site are obviously skilled, but just giving someone a foot rub and clean socks can vastly improve his/her day.
VN: PHC offers insight and education into the most pressing needs of the different communities throughout San Francisco. Volunteering at the Bayview Opera House, LGBT Center and the Bill Graham Auditorium really opened up my eyes to the diverse issues affecting unique homeless populations in my city.
RW: I love the fact that at PHC, lawyers are simply one part of a wonderfully diverse army of volunteers. It is great to know that if a client has non-legal needs, there are on-site volunteers who can help them connect with services—both essential ones, such as medical care, and wonderfully non-essential ones, such as free paperback books and a holiday-card making station.
What do you find challenging?
PB: The most challenging part is trying to juggle the needs of so many people in such a short period of time. Never a dull moment…
CJ: What I find most challenging is the frustration of feeling powerless in the face of injustice. There are so many people that come in that made one mistake that just destroyed their lives. It seems like once a person is just a smidge below middle class, e.g., can’t pay a parking ticket, they are at such risk of becoming homeless! Not paying that parking fine leads to a warrant and an even more unpayable fine, then jobs and services are hard to come by, leading to a downward spiral. Also, people receiving public assistance have so little power over their circumstances – if a public housing landlord wants to be a jerk, it’s really hard to do anything about it.
VN: Being a public defender, I’m connected with my client from the beginning of a case until the very end, sometimes developing meaningful relationships that become permanent. The biggest challenge with PHC is just seeing a snapshot of someone’s life. An individual shows up in crisis and I do my best to convey the best advice and legal strategy then the connection is over, done. It is an unsettling feeling not knowing what happens to these compelling humans once they leave you and return to the world. And though they rarely call, I’d like to think they left in a better direction.
RW: It is tough hearing the extent of some clients’ problems, particularly when there are not easy legal solutions. And it is hard seeing some of the same clients, month after month, and knowing that they are still struggling.