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Can a Minuscule Nonprofit Help San Francisco Win Its War on Homelessness?

Deconstructing the hyperlocal example of North Beach Citizens.

North Beach Citizens client Cynthia Jones at a community food pantry earlier this year.


Steven Daniels is not homeless. But he was once. And the story of how he went from a state of destitution to one of relative health and stability offers a lesson that could help San Francisco someday solve its 30-year homelessness crisis. Daniels is one of a multitude of formerly homeless people who credit a five-employee, 15-year-old storefront nonprofit called North Beach Citizens with changing—and maybe even saving—their lives. In particular, Daniels acknowledges one woman, North Beach Citizens director Kristie Fairchild, with being his personal savior.

For 11 years, Daniels, a 55-year old Fresno native, slept under a parking structure off Broadway, just a block away from the North Beach Citizens office on Kearny Street, while hustling as a crack dealer in the Tenderloin. A friend hoping to help Daniels took him to the nonprofit. After Daniels started helping clean up the office and working on the organization’s street beautification program, Fairchild made appointments for him to get housing and assistance. “But I was a genuine fuckup,” he says. “I was still hustling and I used to miss the appointments. It really used to get Kristie perturbed. One time she yelled at me, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” It brought a tear to my eye. I thought, This lady is not giving up on you. She cares more about you than you do about yourself.”

But Daniels still wasn’t ready. He got busted for selling crack and ended up in jail. “Kristie still didn’t give up on me,” he says. “She sent me Martin Luther King’s speeches when I was in jail. Then a Section 8 housing spot came up. I’d been on the list for eight years. She called the court and said, ‘I don’t need him in jail.’ I wasn’t due to be released for six and a half weeks, but they let me out the next day. The judge told me, ‘Kristie Fairchild put herself on the line for you. Come back in seven days and show me your paperwork, and I’ll release you.’ I did and I moved in on Valentine’s Day, 2014. That’s love. I’ve been housed ever since. I haven’t used drugs, I don’t need NarcAnon—I’m done.”

Food pantry volunteers Wendy (left) and Meeka.

Although he picks up a weekly bag of groceries at the North Beach Citizens food pantry, Daniels no longer needs to access its other services. But he comes in every other day anyway. “I eat breakfast and see what needs to be done,” he says. “Like the cardboard boxes that need to be broken down. Sometimes I help clean up and vacuum the floor.” When Fairchild’s name comes up, it’s like somebody turned on a light switch inside him. “Kristie, she’s my friend,” he says. “I love that lady.” 

One of Fairchild’s daily routines is to walk through North Beach, checking out what’s happening in the neighborhood, who’s new, who’s misbehaving, who needs help. I accompanied her on one of those walks in early June, marveling at how she knew every one of the dozen or so homeless people we came across by name, some of whom I’d seen for months but who had remained invisible to me. We came upon a well-dressed, well-groomed 58-year-old woman named Cynthia Jones sitting on a park bench in Washington Square. Actually, Jones is so presentable and articulate that I initially think she’s a staffer at North Beach Citizens. But it turns out that she, like Daniels, is a former client. Fighting cancer, she lost her house and began living in her car by the ocean. After her car was impounded and she was reduced to living on the streets, Jones was assaulted and developed PTSD. She came to North Beach Citizens and Fairchild did what she does: She helped get Jones a counselor, put her in temporary stabilization housing in a North Beach SRO, got her a mailing address, got her on General Assistance and food stamps, put her on four or five housing lists, and helped her apply for SSI (disability), a process that takes an average of four years. (Jones is still waiting for her SSI.) As a crowning touch, Fairchild paid for her to fly to Seattle, where she was reunited with her daughter.

Today Jones lives in a shared rental in the Western Addition and takes courses at City College. “I probably wouldn’t have made it without North Beach Citizens,” she says.

North Beach Citizens
is not like any other nonprofit homeless service provider in San Francisco. “It’s the dragon fruit in the salad,” says Gail Gilman, chief executive officer of Community Housing Partnership and a 15-year North Beach resident. Several things set it apart. First, it mainly serves the inhabitants of one specific part of the city, North Beach, though its focus includes most of District 3, including Chinatown, Russian Hill, and Fisherman’s Wharf. This neighborhood orientation is key. It allows Fairchild and her staff to personally know most of the approximately 300 homeless people in District 3—63 of whom it housed last year. It provides a focus for the community at large: It’s a lot easier to feel empathy for people whom you regard not as alien interlopers, but as your neighbors. “People in the neighborhood are always making donations, dropping clothes and things off all the time,” Fairchild says. “That’s huge, because it makes people feel like they are part of the solution. It makes the community stronger.” Many of NBC’s financial donors are also from the neighborhood. 

The second aspect that sets North Beach Citizens apart is its tininess: With a staff of five and an annual budget of just $800,000, it’s one of the smallest homeless service providers in the city. (By comparison, the Hamilton Family Center receives $12 million from the city; Gilman’s Community Housing Partnership gets $8 million. In all, nonprofits receive $175 million of the $202 million budget overseen by the new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.) This small scale—North Beach Citizens receives just $20,000 from the city for its street beautification program—allows it to create a smaller community within the larger one, a supportive safe haven for people who have had little support or safety in their lives.

Third, unlike almost every other service provider in town, North Beach Citizens gets virtually all of its money from private donations. What Gilman calls its “unprecedented” private support is in part a legacy handed down from its founder, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who started the organization in 2001, and whose continued commitment to and passion for the organization made shaking the money tree easier in the early years. 

And finally, NBC doesn’t accept anyone who walks in as a client: Its clients (currently 304 in number) have to be willing to help themselves. Fairchild says the success of her program depends on her only accepting people who are prepared to accept certain social norms—“kindergarten rules,” she calls them—and at least take baby steps toward improving their lives. Hardcore alcoholics and drug users who refuse treatment and continually act out, and people with severe psychiatric issues who don’t take their meds may be given a tryout, but if they don’t get their act together, they won’t be registered. “People who aren’t ready just create too many problems, and we don’t have the staff to deal with them,” she says. “It’s a really small space, and it’s not good for the rest of the clients. They need to be engaging in a positive way.”

Despite its small size, North Beach Citizens can boast some impressive achievements. Since 2005, it has found permanent housing for 111 clients. Forty-five people are currently in temporary stabilization housing, mostly SROs, paid for by the group. It has sent another 45 people back to their home states or cities, after determining that they had family or support there. It’s located housing for many other clients who paid for it themselves. And it’s become increasingly effective at housing its clients: Last year it placed 63 people in permanent or temporary housing.

But North Beach Citizens’ positive housing outcomes are only part of what makes it effective—and this is where the organization could offer lessons to the city at large as it renews its efforts to permanently put a dent in its homeless crisis. As everyone who works in the field can attest, just placing homeless people in housing, while a necessary first step, is not enough. Most homeless individuals need intensive, long-term support—positive, face-to-face relationships with compassionate, tough, patient people who won’t give up on them. There aren’t easy metrics to measure what such support means to homeless people. But without it, every measurable outcome—housing retention, ability to work, freedom from substance abuse—is negatively affected. 

The strength of the supportive peer community the group has cultivated can be seen every day at its Kearny Street headquarters between 9:30 a.m. and noon, when it serves breakfast, offers meetings with staff, and just provides a place for its current and past clients to hang out. Dozens of people come by every day, eating, talking to friends, catching up with Kristie or other staffers, volunteering to do tasks like mopping the floors or unloading the trucks for the Wednesday free food pantry, and availing themselves of wellness services like acupuncture. Many people I spoke to said that this community of friends, peers, and staffers provided a vital safe haven for them. 

And key to all of this is size: “They’re only a small group, in a small space, and that makes it possible for it to become a real community,” says Community Housing Partnership’s Gilman. “When you have 2,000 people being served, no matter how hard you try, it’s not going to feel the same.”

As San Francisco
searches for innovative, effective ways to win the war on homelessness, North Beach Citizens’ successes in housing and helping significant numbers of homeless people—with almost no public money, and with minimal staff and overhead—raise the question: Can its model be successfully replicated across the city? There are reasons to believe it could. But there are also limitations on what a neighborhood-based, small-scale organization like North Beach Citizens can achieve. 

In principle, and sometimes in practice, the neighborhood-based service model can be successful. Respected organizations in the Mission like Martin de Porres House of Hospitality and the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center have effectively followed the same model, and there’s no reason to think that other neighborhoods couldn’t duplicate their efforts if given the opportunity. Fairchild cites the Richmond as such a neighborhood. “I was asked to do a survey of homeless people out in the Richmond,” she says. “They’re born and raised in San Francisco, there’s no way they’re going to get on a bus and go downtown to the Tenderloin to get services and then go back out to where they are, so they just kind of survive out there. And there are the vets who are tucked away at Lands End, who get their services from the VA and are homeless out there. For those people to have a place where they could go within their community, and where people can outreach to them on a daily basis, that seems feasible.”

Alex Briscoe, former director of the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, now the managing director for policy at the Tipping Point Foundation’s new homeless initiative, agrees. North Beach Citizens’ “client-centered approach of meeting people where they are, meeting their pressing needs, and building social capital and cohesion, could absolutely be replicated elsewhere,” Briscoe says.

But in order for a neighborhood-based model to work, the neighborhood has to accept a homeless service provider—and that has proven to be problematic in San Francisco. While organizations like Community Housing Partnership have successfully created housing for homeless people in middle-class neighborhoods, NIMBY-ism continues to be a roadblock. In 2015, for example, Bayview residents successfully lobbied against the city’s plan to create a 100-bed homeless shelter in the neighborhood. 

And even if NBC were able to overcome NIMBYism and open franchises in middle-class neighborhoods like the Richmond, there aren’t that many homeless people there—just 80 in all of District 2, according to the 2015 Point in Time count. To really make a dent in San Francisco’s homeless crisis, you have to tackle the places where, by design and by happenstance, most of the city’s homeless and homeless service providers are located: the Tenderloin, SoMa, parts of the Mission, and the Bayview. Nonprofits like Hospitality House do a fine job in the Tenderloin, but the sheer numbers of homeless people there, and the severity of many of their problems, is daunting. An organization like North Beach Citizens, whose model is based on creating a small, supportive community, might simply be overwhelmed.

This raises another challenge. By refusing to administer to the most troubled, North Beach Citizens effectively “creams” its clients—i.e., it takes the most functional people, thus making its job considerably easier. Would it be able to achieve the same outcomes in an environment where there were much greater numbers of severely distressed people?

The answer’s not clear. For one thing, Fairchild actually takes on a lot of pretty damaged people—like the wild-eyed, mentally ill man from Texas who came into the office one day when we were talking. After briefly conferring with him about a trip home he planned to make, she told me the story of her history with him. “When I first saw him, he was half-naked and pushing a shopping cart—one of those guys,” she says. “We started engaging with him, got him an ID, but he was in bad shape. It was only a matter of time before something horrible happened to him. I told him, ‘I looked up ‘crazy homeless person’ in Webster’s and it was your picture.’ He laughed. You have to establish that kind of rapport with people. He ended up in jail, which turned out to be the best thing because he got the correct medication for his schizophrenia. We helped him reunite with his family and we work with his parole officer.”

For those who are unwilling to help themselves, however, and who fall into unacceptable behaviors, law enforcement has a role to play, Fairchild says. “If they're just going to say ‘No, I just want to drink all day and panhandle and do my own thing because I can handle that,’ then that’s their choice and a lot of times that becomes a police issue. When they’re catcalling women and misbehaving in the community, then it’s a different system that they fit into.” 

But if Fairchild doesn’t allow the most problematic homeless people to ruin NBC’s delicate ecosystem, she doesn’t abandon them, either. During her walks around North Beach, she engages with people like Robbie, an older alcoholic man in a wheelchair. “I check in on Robbie to make sure that he’s OK, if he needs clothing, what’s happening in his world. He’s so dirty—basically he’s incontinent—that I can’t have him in this small space. I’ll serve him and he can go or I’ll get him some pants. But the HOT team [the city’s Homeless Outreach Team] at this point has picked him up, we’ve advocated for him, and he’s in and out of the hospital all the time because his health is so bad. We try to coordinate the care so we know what’s happening with him.”

It’s hard to know exactly how an organization like North Beach Citizens would do in a place like the Tenderloin, where there are seemingly five Robbies on every corner. But there’s reason for optimism that it would have a positive impact—and that it might deliver a bang that’s worth the relatively few bucks it runs on. Which raises another question about whether the organization’s model is replicable: its funding. North Beach Citizens is almost entirely funded by private donations. But not every neighborhood has a Francis Ford Coppola, and not every nonprofit has a board of directors that “gives and finds givers,” in Fairchild’s words, as generously as theirs. If a North Beach Citizens franchise were unable to raise private funding, could it be successful using city funding?

Fairchild acknowledges that being privately funded gives her much more flexibility than if she had to deal with the bureaucracy that comes with city funding. “I can pick up a phone and put someone in an SRO tonight,” she says. Fairchild isn’t actively lobbying to expand her organization. But she says she would be happy to receive city money, and doesn’t believe it would impact her nonprofit’s effectiveness. “Our mission is to help homeless people. So however we can do that, whether it’s partnering with the city or partnering with other nonprofits, with anybody that I can get my hands on, that’s what we’re going to do.”

As for the city itself, new homeless chief Jeff Kositsky says he plans to evaluate all the nonprofits who make up a crucial part of his tool chest. “High-performing nonprofits will do very well, and those that aren’t as effective won’t do as well,” he says. Kositsky plans to meet with North Beach Citizens later this year. 

The final challenge to replicating North Beach Citizens is perhaps the most daunting one of all: cloning Kristie Fairchild. In many ways, Fairchild is North Beach Citizens. She’s a straightforward, no B.S. woman whose job requires her to be part nurturing mom, part expert navigator of bureaucracies, part shrink, part kindergarten teacher, and part beat cop. “She’s not gonna take any shit,” says District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin. “She gives people what they need, it’s compassionate and sophisticated tough love.” Peskin pays her the highest compliment anyone can make within the city’s nonprofit sector, comparing her positively to the take-no-prisoners founder of Delancey Street. ”She’s like a District 3 Mimi Silber,” he says. 

The good news is that, while there’s only one Fairchild, there are many people in the field who have her same qualities, and many more people who could develop them. In the end, there’s no secret about how to help homeless people. No miraculous, saintly, Mother Theresa–like qualities are required. The battles are won face to face, one person at a time, by ordinary human beings who possess ordinary human qualities: dedication, compassion, and smarts. It’s all about giving them the resources they need to succeed. North Beach Citizens has won more than its share of those battles. Its model works. And that model could play a larger role as San Francisco tries to win the war against homelessness.


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