By Mike Kinney
The Standard joined the SOS Engagement Team in September 2023 as it departed from its Richmond headquarters on Caltrans property on South 2nd Street under the I-580 freeway. The team headed over to S. 49th Street and Seaport Ave., where it helped to relocate and provide services for about 13 people who were living there in RVs and trailers.
The Richmond Police Department had given the encampment dwellers 72 hours’ notice to move their vehicles. In addition to connecting the unhoused members with resources, the SOS team cleaned up the encampment, removing piles of garbage and debris and hauling it away.
It was a typical day for an atypical and growing local nonprofit. What is unique about SOS is that the very people it staffs to engage with residents of West County encampments and provide survival and stabilization services to its dwellers are themselves current and former encampment dwellers. And the act of supporting the city’s most vulnerable residents and helping fellow unhoused individuals get back on their feet, is impacting the trajectory of their own lives.
“Here’s the most important fact – once our staff get into permanent housing, they stay there.”
Launched in January 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and as public services became shuttered, SOS currently now employs 16 unhoused members of the community. They are paid to work, and they work on average 20 hours per week, SOS founder Daniel Barth said.
Meanwhile, they’re offered the same support and resources as SOS participants. Of the 55 current staff members SOS employed in the past year, 28 upgraded to permanent housing during their tenure, Barth said.
“Here’s the most important fact – once our staff get into permanent housing, they stay there,” he said. “This is about housing sustainability.”
SOS was an extension of voluntary efforts Barth had led in encampments prior to the pandemic. The organization started in partnership with the Reentry Success Center and was launched with grant funding from the Chevron Environmental and Community Investment Agreement.
“We soon realized that we needed to hire people straight out of encampments,” Barth said. “You can’t get people to really put skin in the game unless it’s where people call home. And 100 of the field staff were living in these up to 200 encampment hotspots that we visit across Richmond.”
When visiting these encampments, Barth’s team seeks to support unhoused individuals with immediate needs.
It’s very difficult to apply for housing, or a job, without a shower and clean clothes, and something to take them out of the encampment and survival. Along with opportunities to use its mobile showers and laundry, SOS delivers essentials like tents, prepared meals, portable toilets, and drinking water to encampments. The team works to help fix RVs that have broken down. It operates workforce clinics, and now is launching a 90 Day Job Readiness Program.
Some needs are more immediate than others. In one instance, Daniel and O’Neill Fernandez, SOS’s director of programs, responded to an urgent 911 plea for help and brought Narcan, which saved the life of a person who overdosed.
Barth opposes the common assumption that homeless people want to live and stay in an encampment under the freeway. These individuals are trapped in isolation, poverty of resources, and a lack of practical peer-based support. The people Barth says he often encounters cannot fathom how to begin the long climb out to self-sufficiency. The alternatives to encampments are usually dehumanizing and replicate the institutions that have not served them well in the past, Barth added.
“I know – I built and ran homeless shelters for a quarter century,” he said.
SOS aims to pave a smoother path to self-sustainability for Richmond’s unhoused. Barth says his nonprofit managed to do so by actively showing up and being a familiar and trustworthy presence at encampments.
“We have so many stories of people turning this corner, and taking this long climb out,” he said. “It starts with ongoing, predictable support that people truly want.”
The success of SOS translated into swift growth in and support from the community. The organization incorporated in January 2021 and became a nonprofit in June 2022.
SOS is building partnerships with more senior organizations to logistically deploy its services across West County. The nonprofit is mapping encampments in all neighborhoods, counting the people in them and rating their safety levels. At these locations, SOS is expanding its mobile services into collaboratively- resourced Mobile Service Sites.
SOS teams with several community-based partners to conduct “Workforce Clinics” in North and Central Richmond and San Pablo. GRIP and Community Housing Development Corporation are strong partners to get people prepped for jobs, Barth said.
“Next is our launch of our 90 Day Job Readiness program that links housing first resources with income to sustain that housing,” he said, “and establishing Wellness Centers for Central Richmond and San Pablo where people can come for daytime respite, socialization and access to classes, clinics, activities and ongoing relationships on their pathways to housing and improved wellbeing.” This is part of SOS’s partnership with LifeLong Medical Care’s experience in providing Street Medicine services in Alameda County.
Barth credited the City of Richmond, the Reimagining Public Safety Community Task Force and corporate supporters like Chevron for helping to establish SOS as a change agency.
He said the city facilitated cooperation between housed and unhoused people in lieu of unnecessary interactions with law enforcement. A mental health crisis response and the city’s own C.O.R.E. team (Coordinated Outreach Referral, Engagement) are among the recent enhancements to Richmond’s homeless response.
At the start of COVID, Chevron Richmond became one of the first corporate donors to SOS. Chevron funding helped provide a public shower facility and also supported social worker positions.
“This model works,” he said. “At the heart of it, people want to have a chance for that same opportunity. There’s only one way out of homelessness, and that’s to climb the cliff that traps people in it. That isn’t easy, but we’re trying to make it easier for our neighbors.”
One can also call the SOS Neighbor Care Line to reach a member of the SOS Engagement Team at (510) 806-8650.
To help an unhoused individual get services, call the Coordinated Referral Engagement Program (CORE) at 211.