Shared from the 2/3/2019 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition


Nonprofit’s leader offers path forward for homeless

Peter DaSilva / Special to The Chronicle

Eileen Richardson’s Downtown Streets Team has helped 1,800 people stabilize their lives.

It felt like a spiritual revival for the homeless, only there was no church. Just a 100 or so street-worn folks bunched excitedly together in a downtown San Francisco meeting hall, a batch of pseudo-counselors to help them, and a lot of happy screaming and pounding music.

Eileen Richardson, the ringleader of this weekly rally, strode to the front of the room, the old rock tune “Come On Eileen” blasting from the speakers. She soaked in the scene, training her gaze on the seats — one by one — and then got down to it.

“Why are you here?” she called out. “Why are you here?”

Richardson, 57, knew the answers. Basically, at least. They’d come because the Downtown Streets Team nonprofit she created 13 years ago gives them the best hope they’ve perhaps ever had to get their lives together and to gain or regain a sense of dignity and purpose.

They do it by starting out with brooms in their hands and a simple concept. They’d go out to the same streets many of them had slept on the night before and spend a few hours a day cleaning them up for free. Commit to that, and Downtown Streets Team’s staff would help them find housing, jobs and the rejuvenating energy that comes from joining a group of struggling people who support each other as they try to move ahead.

In 13 years, Richardson’s organization has helped nearly 2,000 people off the streets — people like Bettina Mateo, who was sitting in the fourth row.

“Why am I here?” said Mateo, 55, her voice shaking. The indignities of years huddled on sidewalks and enduring abusive men and hunger — all of it — were about to spill out, she later acknowledged. But she felt the eyes of the crowd and chose to go philosophical. More upbeat. Just a bit.

“It’s pretty emotional,” Mateo said, choosing every word carefully. “It’s to bridge the gap between us and them ... the isolating part of being homeless is huge. And I’m just now digging out of my hole because of this program.”

For just a beat, Richardson’s face showed a mixture of sympathy and pride. She waved in Mateo’s direction.

“It’s incredible,” she said. “This was my vision. To see you all here flourishing is unreal. Thank you all.”

The crowd erupted again and one after another piped up to talk about how Downtown Streets Team helped shepherd them to stability — but most off all, gave them a sense of self-respect. That’s the key principle here at this “weekly success meeting” at the nonprofit’s San Francisco headquarters.

Self-respect. By self-initiative.

For this approach and the results it has reaped, Richardson is one of six finalists for The Chronicle’s Visionary of the Year, an annual recognition of Bay Area leaders whose work improves the world.

The idea of this nonprofit, which hit Richardson like an epiphany, is uncomplicated — give street people something useful to do, give them a chance to feel dignity and respect, love them in a sense of community, and good things will happen. The concept is not new in the homeless service world, but there’s something about Richardson’s direct approach that’s hard to find anywhere else and seems to work phenomenally well on a fundamentally emotional level. Hand people brooms with a smile, and promise to help them get back on their feet.

It starts with accountability, Richardson said.

“To get on the team, you’ve just got to be 18 years old,” she said. “But to stay on the team, you can’t be five minutes late, can’t be using (drugs), can’t sit around doing nothing.

“It’s a bit of tough love. But it seems to work.”

Richardson’s nonprofit has no recruitment arm. Everyone comes in by word of mouth, usually after seeing the cleaning teams, in their signature yellow shirts, doing their thing in the street. The teams accept anyone, though most who participate are homeless, and the only payment is vouchers to stores such as Target, up to $100 a week, depending on how many hours a person puts in with the broom.

The organization was founded in 2005 with an office in Palo Alto and since then has expanded to 12 other cities, from San Jose to San Francisco, and east to Sacramento and Modesto. In all, Downtown Streets has helped 1,800 people stabilize their lives, Richardson said.

“You can’t expect someone who’s been homeless for years to just get up one day and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to get a job and get off the street,’ ” Richardson said. “You’ve got to have peers to help you, and that’s what we offer. You put on that yellow shirt, and you’re a hero — with other heroes, doing a good thing for the community, cleaning up, helping each other.

“I think most folks think homeless people just want to panhandle, or lie, or cheat, but they’re dead wrong,” she said. “They really just want an opportunity to work and get their lives together. No matter if it’s housing or a job, you need to build dignity and confidence if you’re going to really successfully move ahead — and let me tell you, we’ve seen miracles happen for people when we help them help themselves.”

Matteo is just one example. She landed in San Francisco five years ago after a prison stretch for drugs and found just about every door slammed shut because of her conviction. She’d made progress in fits and starts with charity help, but a few months ago she stumbled across the Downtown Streets Team program and asked what they could do.

“I was sleeping outside, sometimes at people’s houses, drugs all around and people wanting sex in exchange for everything, and I just can’t do all that,” she said. “Then I came to this place, these people. I was in shock.

“Now I’m on the team. I need a job, support, community, and this is the place. I will get there with these people. I know it.”

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who nominated Richardson for the Visionary award, persuaded her to expand to his city in 2011 when San Jose was struggling with burgeoning homeless camps in its creeks and fields.

“She asked if we had any money to pay her program, we said no, and she said, ‘OK, we’ll do it anyway,’ ” Liccardo said. “And let me tell you, that is a unique nonprofit leader. We were eventually able to find some funding and to grow the program, and it’s really blossomed in the city.

“What they’ve done by providing people with a pathway to employment has been nothing short of miraculous.”

It’s been a long road from Richardson’s childhood in the small village of Greenwood Lake, N.Y., population 3,000, where the family struggled to put food on the table after her father became disabled. Growing up that way gave her a passion for social justice. At 9 years old, she wrote to President Richard Nixon asking him why he was sending people to the moon on space expeditions when there were people hungry in America.

After secretarial school and college, she wound up working as a venture capitalist and became the first CEO of Napster, the pioneering music-sharing online site. Taking a break from the business whirl in 2004, she volunteered at the Palo Alto Food Closet, which feeds the homeless and other poor people. The altruism bug bit her.

“Venture capital is not boring, but at some point it was just more deals and dollars,” Richardson said. “It got to the point where, when I’m sitting with another venture guy showing me his Mercedes and how he can push buttons and it does fancy things, I’m thinking, ‘My God, I have to do something that’s real.’ ”

While volunteering with the food pantry, “this idea started circulating that cleaning up Palo Alto’s streets would be a good thing to do,” she said. “We’d just done a survey of business owners, and their big issues were homelessness and cleanliness. So I thought, ‘Why not start doing that, and do it in a way that helps people help themselves?’ ”

Thirteen years later, her nonprofit has a budget of $8 million and 65 employees, including her son, Chris Richardson, who is now chief program officer. In San Francisco alone, the group’s teams removed 483,084 pounds of trash and 21,712 discarded syringes last year.

“This place saved me, and the important thing you really find here is that if you want something, you have to go out and get it, make it happen,” J.T. Torres, 42, said as he stood near the coffeepots with Richardson at the recent weekly meeting.

Torres came to Northern California a couple of years ago to visit family after being hit by a train in Florida and losing part of his right leg. After moving to San Francisco to find a job and housing, his money ran out, he landed in a shelter, and he “was right at the bottom when I met these guys,” he said.

Cleaning and finding a similarly ambitious homeless community fired Torres up, and he now has a restaurant job and an apartment. He is also a team leader at Downtown Streets.

“I live on the six P’s — “Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance,” Torres said. Turning to Richardson, he suddenly choked up. “Thank you,” he stammered, and hugged her.

Richardson’s eyes filled with tears. “No, thank you,” she whispered.

Kevin Fagan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @KevinChron

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