A Remarkable Team of Compassionate People
By Michael Fitzgerald
A band of part-time angels is visiting Stockton homeless camps, improving the lives of people living in shockingly bad conditions in the time of Coronavirus.
Some of the players may surprise you. All may inspire.
“I work for everybody, and these people need us more than ever,” said District Attorney Tori Verber-Salazar.
Three times a week after work, Verber-Salazar goes out with a team that brings the homeless food, tents, sleeping bags, Covid-19 screening and other much-needed help.
The last official count found over 1,500 homeless people in San Joaquin County. Insiders say there may be 2,000 uncounted.
“There are children living in shanties with wooden floors and blue tarps for ceilings,” said Verber-Salazar. “If you look, there’s garbage everywhere, and the children are playing in it. Throwing a ball or chasing a dog in the middle of what other people would see as a dump.”
The team meets at Bella Vista restaurant. There, owner Rima Barkett runs a program for disadvantaged student chefs. They prepare 300 free meals for the elderly and homeless.
“I just can’t sit on my hands while people go hungry,” said Barkett.
The team loads the boxed meals into cars and convoys to homeless camps. Their guide is Dennis Buettner, a homeless outreach worker with the county Behavioral Health Services.
“I hate it when people say we have a homeless problem,” said Buettner. You have homeless people. You have a housing problem.”
At the camps, “What we do, we hook them up with whatever services they need, whether its medical, mental health, child abuse, whatever it may be,” he said.
The team sets up a food table out front while Buettner walks through camp. “Hi there. Do you need some food? We got food. And dog food. Come on out.”
Chris Rouppet is one of the team members handing out boxed meals. Rouppet is chief of staff for Supervisor Miguel Villapudua.
“I believe in this,” Rouppet said. “I believe I’m sort of compelled to help our homeless population during a crisis.”
“Thank you, guys,” a homeless man says, eating. “It’s amazing.”
In one camp, Buettner talked to a wheelchair-bound woman so weak she could not make it to the food table.
“From my liver being messed up my kidney’s going bad,” she said.
“So, what can we do to get you help?” asked Buettner, who decided to return with a doctor. “I’m going to follow up with you, okay?”
Buettner will be as good as his word, a key to winning the trust of homeless people, he said. Another key: “Being willing to take the extra step to help them.”
At another camp a distraught 65-year-old woman says that robbers stole all her belongings.
The team gives her a tent, a sleeping bag, and food.
“Go over to your camp,” Buettner says. “When I come around I’ll set it up for you.”
The woman is grateful to the point of tears.
The County of San Joaquin contributes medical staff to pop-up clinics that test homeless people for Covid 19. Dr. Elyas Parsa and several assistants held one of the pop-up clinics under the Crosstown Freeway.
“These are individuals who cannot socially distance, and they don’t have the information they need,” Dr. Parsa said.
Homeless people lined up to be tested.
“Yeah, I’m afraid of it. I don’t want to get it, said Rosa Dail. “You can’t stay six feet apart from people, not here.”
The doctor nasal swabbed Dail’s throat. The sample is sent to a lab. United Way pays for test results.
Should someone test positive, they are notified by phone and instructed to self-quarantine. If they have no phone, an outreach worker contacts them personally.
County clinicians follow up, monitoring the sick person until they are well again.
“We actually reach out to their family members and test them” too, said Doctor Parsa.
Another team member is Jill Faso Antonini of the Animal Protection League.
Many homeless people have dogs – some, too many. Litters of puppies are everywhere. To some, dogs are family; to others, mere commodities, currency for barter, said Faso Antonini.
She offers dog food, vaccinations and adoptions. “Do you need any dog food?” she asks. “Is the mama still healthy to feed them? Have they had any shots yet?”
If a homeless person gives up dogs, Faso Antonini posts pictures of the dogs on a rescue website. Rescuers come from as far away as Sonoma to give dogs a new home.
Faso Antonini plans to fundraise for a van that can visit homeless camps and offer free spay, neutering and veterinary care.
She’s not the only one who’s gotten a better idea how to serve the homeless by reaching them where they live. Rouppet of Supervisor Villapudua’s office says his participation has shown him the way to better government homeless policy.
“If, in government, more people were more involved in outreach like we’re doing, and actually speak to these people … and see what the needs are, I think they’d come up with quicker solutions.”
The Supes are discussing creation of a mobile unit which could bring eligibility workers, veterans service reps, and other service providers to encampments, Rouppet said.
This remarkable team of compassionate people evolved from an Emergency Winter Shelter Project. One of the creators of that project was Kristen Birtwhistle, the President and CEO of United Way of San Joaquin County.
“United Way is taking a different approach than in the past. We must focus on homelessness,” said Birtwhistle. “We kind of turned it on its head a little bit and headed toward social services.”
The Emergency Winter Shelter Project secured over 100 additional beds for area shelters.
Yet its members saw the need to do more.
“This is about a group of people who come together to do something good for the community,” said Birtwhistle. “They’re just demonstrating sheer compassion for these people, unequivocally.”
With United Way’s funding help, county clinicians are testing for Covid 19 in the shelters, too. The goal is to save lives of the most vulnerable while ensuring the shelters and streets do not become hotbeds of Coronavirus.
Said Tori Verber-Salazar, “I think it’s probably some of the greatest work you can do in life. I’m grateful I can do this.”
To support this and other efforts by United Way, text “Covid 19” to 40403 and fill out the donation form.