By Kai Gault, HAC Outreach Supervisor, and Heather Freinkel, HAC Managing Attorney

HAC’s Outreach Team began in 2020 and has now grown to eight people. The team delivers services to clients living in unsheltered locations, putting into practice the philosophy of “meeting clients where they’re at” and impacting our clients’ lives in profound ways.

Outreach staff help clients apply for cash aid, food stamps, and Medi-Cal, often without the client having to visit the Social Services office, which can be a barrier for many people. The team helps clients stay connected to HAC SSI legal representation, provides survival supplies, obtains essential identity documents, and engages with clients to identify and address the barriers they face to accessing services.

The HAC Outreach Team includes five housing navigators who support HAC SSI clients in accessing permanent, affordable housing placements. Two of the team’s clients generously shared their experiences of working towards permanent housing with the housing navigation members of our team.

Not Giving Up

Christian Gruita, 56, spent years living in his car, homeless shelters, and temporary hotel housing.  In January 2023, he finally moved into permanent affordable housing in Berkeley with the support of the HAC Outreach Team. His advice to others still struggling to get into housing is to not give up.

Mr. Gruita’s experience highlights that staying in traditional homeless shelters, also sometimes referred to as “congregate shelters,” requires grit and is not accessible to everyone. He reflects that one of the shelters he stayed in was “like a refugee camp.” He was required to operate on the shelter’s schedule with little flexibility.

Mr. Gruita says he appreciated the hot meals, but that the conditions were difficult. He slept in crowded quarters on a small cot and was required to get up at 6am every day and leave the premises until 5pm, regardless of weather or conditions outside. He lived under these extreme circumstances for almost two years.

At one point during the height of COVID, Mr. Gruita was referred by a case manager for a three-week stay at Motel 6. However, he was not told that if he left the shelter he would not be allowed to return for 90 days. To make matters worse, his car – which he had been sleeping in before coming to the shelter – was towed from the hotel parking lot just hours after his parking pass there had expired, even though he was still staying at the hotel and just needed to go to the office to pick up a new pass. When his stay at the hotel was over, he was unable to return to the shelter and had no car to sleep in. His only possessions were impounded with the car.

HAC outreach staff drove Mr. Gruita to retrieve his property from his car, rent a storage unit, and find another shelter to stay at, but the experience was nonetheless demoralizing. When Mr. Gruita contacted Motel 6 to advocate for himself, the hotel chain banned him from coming back.

Mr. Gruita’s experience highlights that staying in traditional homeless shelters requires grit and is not accessible to everyone. When asked how his life has changed, Mr. Gruita says he can now rest well, do his homework, and work on himself.

In January 2023, Mr. Gruita was finally referred to a permanent housing unit by Home Stretch, Alameda County’s Coordinated Entry agency. [Note: in order to access housing placements for people experiencing homelessness in Alameda County, everyone must go through the Coordinated Entry program.] He submitted his application and supporting documents with assistance from the HAC Outreach Team. The unit is small – a converted motel room without a kitchen – but recently remodeled and in good condition. The county also provides funding for furniture and household items, which helped Mr. Gruita set up his new home.

Since moving in, Mr. Gruita has been able to enroll in courses to complete his high school diploma. When asked how his life has changed, he says he can now rest well, do his homework, work on himself, cook meals, and “do whatever [he wants].”

There is still room for improvement in Mr. Gruita’s living situation. He still does not have access to a reliable internet connection and the laundry has been out of service for months. Mr. Gruita is hopeful these issues will be resolved with support from the onsite case managers at his building.

Mr. Gruita’s ability to overcome so many challenges demonstrates his extraordinary perseverance and resilience, and sheds light on why so many are not able to participate in congregate shelter programs through no fault of their own.

Getting Help from People Who Really Want to Help

Another HAC outreach client, Juan, 44, says that before he moved into his apartment in August 2023, he struggled to access food, shelter, and medical care. He moved around a lot and did not know who to reach out to for help. He feels that his mental health conditions impacted his ability to access services and support.

Juan told HAC outreach staff that he felt lost and “like [he] had to jump through hoops” to access the help he needed before connecting with HAC.

While he was homeless in Oakland, Juan was able to shower and store some items with friends. He was grateful to have that resource, but it was a burden to travel back and forth from where he was sleeping on the streets.

In February 2023, Juan was matched with an available apartment by Home Stretch. He submitted his application and supporting documents the very next day with assistance from the HAC Outreach Team and was accepted for the apartment in April. However, the unit failed inspection by the housing authority which led to extended delays. Juan stayed on the streets for months even after his application was approved, awaiting his move-in date. In August 2023 he was finally able to move into his apartment.

Since working with HAC, Juan feels that his life has changed “tremendously.” He told HAC outreach staff that he feels connected and has a “sense that [he’s] gotten some help from people who really want to help.” He shared that he doesn’t have family in the area and really appreciates knowing that he has someone that he can reach out to.

Now that he is housed, Juan feels like he is “back on track” and doesn’t feel as angry and depressed as he used to. He looks forward to recommending HAC to others who are experiencing homelessness.

Listening to Our Clients

The HAC outreach team makes sure to take time to celebrate our wins, but we also know that getting into housing is rarely the end of the struggle. While our agency advocates for a Housing First approach, we also need to emphasize the importance of what comes next.

Often, accessing a safe place to stay allows people their first opportunity to truly acknowledge and reflect on their experiences of homelessness. Medical conditions or overwhelming emotions can surface when a person finally feels safe. Many people feel isolated and disoriented due to being separated from the deep community connections and support systems they built to survive on the streets. The adjustment can be painful and take months or even years.

Listening to our clients is the only way we can ever truly know what support they need. We hope that embracing a client-centered approach in housing navigation both improves the quality of our services and offers clients an opportunity to step into their own empowerment and self-determination.

Artwork: courtesy HAC client, Juan