PHC Leverages Volunteer Network to Promote Social Inclusion

Project Homeless Connect (PHC) in San Francisco uses education, volunteerism, and rallies to promote social inclusion of people experiencing homelessness.

Project Homeless Connect (PHC) in San Francisco, California can show the world a thing or two about attracting, training, motivating, and deploying a committed volunteer strike force. PHC knows how to get work done—real work done—with dedicated citizens who want to contribute in exchange for the pleasure of contributing. It is powerful stuff.

Emily Cohen, director of programs for Project Homeless Connect in San Francisco (PHC), spelled it out: “We have 12 full-time staff and two full-time volunteers. We do five large-scale service events a year that contribute to our work with people experiencing homelessness, and those require 700 volunteers per event to execute. So we have become very good at working our volunteer network.” Cohen talked about outreach, training, and maintaining enthusiasm in the volunteer network. She also discussed ongoing efforts to educate the public about people experiencing homelessness, to encourage compassion, and to degrade fear in a town on an expensive peninsula with a significant homeless population.

Outreach is mostly conducted through email. “We have ‘lead volunteers’ who have many years of service with us. They take responsibility to recruit within their service areas. If they are doctors, they recruit doctors; haircutters recruit haircutters; legal services recruit legal services; tech types recruit tech types,” said Cohen. Initially, volunteers get basic training through meetings and service-area training and videos, and they also work as general volunteers assisting in food services, food banks, check-in, and escorts for homeless people at shelters.

For events, they have a big rally on the morning of the event to divide up into service areas, train in those service areas, and just generally pump everybody up for a busy day ahead. “We always put experienced folks in with the new volunteers,” said Cohen.

Obviously, there is an art and science to maintaining enthusiasm with this key group. They review the results of the day and give everyone a feedback form in order to find out the high and the low of the day. They send out an outcomes email after the events. “Lots of the volunteers were once homeless,” Cohen said.

San Francisco is gentrifying rapidly, and even the Mid-Market neighborhood in which PHC is located is now expensive real estate filled with shops and restaurants. Those businesses understand that this is traditionally where people experiencing homelessness hung out in the city, but they do not want any negative street behavior that impacts their businesses. So PHC sent out postcards to those businesses. “It explained who we are and had a perforated edge and they could tear it off, give it to the homeless person, and tell them this is where they could get services,” said Cohen. “It was a positive thing, it gave them a tool, and we are seeing a slow but positive change.”

“There are lots of misconceptions about homelessness, mostly that it is an intractable problem. What we want to do, through education, volunteerism, and our rallies and events, is spread the message that we can end homelessness in this city and we can end it well. We are getting businesses and the tech community to change their negative misconceptions. We have a lot of hope.”

This article was published to highlight the October 2014 theme of Education. Learn about SAMHSA's efforts to support people experiencing homelessness and the impact of peer support and social inclusion on people in recovery and in communities.

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

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Katherine Volk
Last Updated: 04/19/2016