Reaching Out to Help Rural Homeless
By Kevin Fagan
The latest rainstorm had just flooded everyone’s tents with San Joaquin River water and mud, turning sleeping bags and clothing into gray lumps. No one had caught any fish, and the leaden skies were threatening another drenching.
It was homeless camp misery. Which meant it was a dandy time for street outreach counselor Felton Mackey to show up at the Antioch riverside outpost with offers of housing, welfare and counseling in hand.
Aid workers like Mackey are seldom heralded with cheers in homeless camps. But with the wet, chilly weather setting in hard, their presence is needed now more than usual — especially in the wide-open rural stretches of the Bay Area, like the empty edge of Contra Costa County that Mackey was patrolling one recent morning.
Unlike cities such as San Francisco or San Jose — which recently oversaw the dismantling of the 300-denizen “Jungle,” the biggest encampment in Northern California — emptier patches and suburban archipelagos don’t have shelters or assistance offices within easy reach. Outlier homeless people who wind up there find woods, riverbanks and gullies to hide in, making them tougher for police to spot — but also for outreach workers who might be able to get them under a roof.
With no doorways, alleys or respite centers to dash to in nasty weather, the outliers are even more exposed to the elements than their urban counterparts. They are a mishmash including felons with nowhere to go, evicted people who lost jobs, and military veterans who don’t mind conditions that can resemble foxholes.
Mackey, 53, works with Contra Costa’s main nonprofit homeless-aid agency, Shelter Inc. He’s among more than 20 outreach counselors with various agencies who troll central and eastern Contra Costa County, where the task of finding the vulnerable outliers often has a haystack-needle aspect to it.
The county is not much bigger in population than San Francisco — about 1 million residents to the city’s 840,000 — but it’s got nearly quadruple the land size. And its homeless population is bigger: at least 7,500 by social service agency estimates, compared with San Francisco’s 6,500.
“Shelter Inc. here, how you doing?” Mackey called out to one of several bearded men, grizzled beyond their middle age, who were shambling about the dozen tents in Antioch assessing wind and water damage. They often fish for bass and sturgeon in the river, but the gear had been fouled up by the storm, so there was no fresh lunch today.
The man looked up, grimaced, then looked back down at his tangled fishing lines.
“OK, now,” Mackey said with a quiet smile, turning to the next man, 59-year-old Jim Woodmancy. “You interested in housing?” he asked.
Woodmancy wordlessly shook hands and squinted into Mackey’s eyes a long moment.
“You serious?” he said.
“I never say anything I don’t mean.”
Another long squint. “All right,” Woodmancy said. “I believe you. I got a woman staying with me, so we’ll talk about it.”
“When you’re ready, you call,” Mackey said, handing over a hygiene bag with toothbrush, shampoo, hand wipes and contact information in it. Like many rural homeless, Woodmancy had a government-subsidized, free cell phone.
“I won’t let you fall through the cracks,” Mackey said.
Mackey’s specialty is military veterans, which means he has more to offer than most outreach counselors because as a specialist he can more quickly hook them up to vet programs. That’s good news for Woodmancy, who was an Army tank driver in Vietnam in 1971. It means he can get veterans housing, medical care and disability pensions that others can’t.
A decade ago, Woodmancy might have had a harder time getting help, but the government has been making extra effort in recent years to help veterans like him. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and President Obama set a goal of ending chronic veterans homelessness nationally by the end of 2015, and that has resulted in $3 million in extra housing and counseling funding pouring into Contra Costa alone in the past three years.
An estimated 20 percent of the nation’s homeless were veterans in the mid-2000s, but with aggressive federal funding and attention in the past few years, that number has dropped to 9 percent, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
San Francisco is on track to meet Obama’s 2015 goal, and a handful of cities — notably Salt Lake City and Phoenix — have already all but eliminated chronic homelessness among veterans by creating supportive housing away from troubled parts of town, with high ratios of on-site counselors per residents.
Shelter Inc., Contra Costa’s biggest nonprofit serving the homeless, helped the county reduce the number of veterans who have spent a year or more on the streets by 48 percent since 2011, to 188 today, according to VA figures. Mackey alone has helped get more than two dozen vets inside.
“I think we can hit that mark set by the president, I really do,” said Tracy Cascio, homeless program manager for the VA Northern California Health Care System. “I’ve been doing this work for 23 years, and I have to say that it did feel like damage control and putting a bandage on things for a long time. Years ago, ending chronic veterans homelessness didn’t seem like a possibility.
“But now,” she said, “with a commitment from the VA and strong collaborative partners like Shelter Inc., Swords to Plowshares and the others involved, I feel it’s possible. I’m really excited.”
For some veterans such as Woodmancy, who hit the streets eight months ago after losing his job as a tow truck driver, the path to stability may be fairly quick. Others pose a stiffer challenge.
Gary Wayne, 65, was a front-line Army sergeant in Vietnam in 1968 and ’69, and did time in a cage as a prisoner of war. He doesn’t trust much of anyone outside his fellow vets, doesn’t want to sleep under a hard roof, and is known as “the mayor” at the riverside camp because he keeps order with an even-keeled authority.
He’s been at the camps four years, drifting there after losing his trucking job a few years before.
“Nuh-uh,” was his response to Mackey’s offer of housing. “But I might talk about getting some teeth (he has none) if you can hook me up with the right VA people. But I’m not going to town. I feel safer out here.”
“No problem,” Mackey said, handing over his business card. “Let’s get you hooked up. It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.”
“So far so good,” Wayne said.
Tim O’Keefe, executive director of Shelter Inc., said the key to helping the hard-core homeless like Wayne is repeated engagement, and it’s counselors like Mackey who accomplish that by never giving up on anyone.
It can take up to two years of visits before a chronically indigent person finally takes an offer, but that’s two years well-spent if it can end the typical revolving cycle for most homeless campers of police sweeps, arrests, releases and new sweeps, O’Keefe said.
“The police come through the camps periodically and sweep them out, but the homeless are always back in two weeks,” O’Keefe said. “The only real solution is to get people into supportive housing.”
'It’s just different out here’
Mackey views his territory as something akin to a frontier.
“The difference out here is that if you are homeless, you are really homeless in the full sense of the word,” said Mackey, who grew up in San Francisco and attended college there. “It’s almost like a business in the city. You have so many resources there. it’s like you don’t have to be homeless if you don’t want to.
“I know it’s not that simple, but I’m trying to make a point. It’s just different out here.”