Step inside HomeFirst’s Boccardo Reception Center (BRC), the largest homeless service center in Santa Clara county, and you’ll discover a dignified experience: Neat rows of bunk beds, a bustling health center, and a bright cafeteria with the day’s menu posted for guests to anticipate their next meal.
HomeFirst’s Chief Development Officer, Stephanie Demos, believes bringing volunteers into the shelter can demystify the homeless experience to dramatically reshape misperceptions and reduce the “otherness” of the homeless population. “When we bring in volunteers,” says Stephanie, “there’s an interaction that our guests are not used to. People don’t even look at them when they are on the streets.”
Copia had the opportunity to tour BRC and sit down with Stephanie to discuss HomeFirst’s programs, the shelter’s robust meal program, and the value of dignifying the homeless experience.
Copia: Can you tell us a bit about the clients you serve at HomeFirst?
Stephanie: There's over 7,348 homeless people in Santa Clara county right now, and we've served 4,500 in the last year. One of my favorite guests is Pete. He's a veteran. He's always polite. He stands straight, you'd know he was military. I said. “Tell me, what’s the hardest thing about being here, because I know this isn’t what anybody says I want to grow and be.” He thought for a second and said: “Not a thing. This place saved my life. I didn't know that there were people that could give you rides to go see your doctor...I didn't know there were places you could get three meals a day."
Copia: That’s fantastic. Do all clients at HomeFirst receive three meals per day?
Stephanie: There are 250 beds, and 140 of them that are not specifically assigned to a program. Those are people that are going to wait in line and come in, and they receive dinner and breakfast. They may have a lunch that they can take with them as well. The other guests are part of the program and receive 3 meals.
Copia: Wow, that’s an incredible volume of food going through your kitchen each day. How do donations help your chef?
Stephanie: One thing that Copia does that other food donors don’t necessarily do is say “we have this many tins of lasagna, or this many meals,” and we can make intelligent decisions for next-day meal planning. That saves us because [our chef] can dole out his supplies accordingly.
Copia: We love to hear that! Can you tell us a bit about your meal program and why it’s is so important to your clients?
Stephanie: Oh, it’s so essential. Think about this: when you are homeless, most of your brain is focused on “where am I going to sleep tonight? Am I safe? How do I need to get from this place to that place.” You’re only thinking of a 24-hour window or maybe a 12-hour window at a time. “What am I going to eat and when am I going to eat next” is one of those thoughts, and there are too many people on the street that have no idea what the answer is to that. When you take care of that need, you free up their brain to say: Now what can I do next?
Copia: Exactly. Well put. Why do you think healthy food, specifically, is important for your clients?
Stephanie: Our guests who have been on the streets for while also have health issues -- lots of individuals with diabetes and respiratory issues -- so healthy eating is a way we can save their lives. On the streets, they will eat whatever they can find. They may eat food that comes from the garbage, and then they can get even sicker. So healthy food is very important.
Copia: What’s one last thing you want people to know about your guests at HomeFirst?
Stephanie: I do outreach speaking engagements, and one of my recent presentations was with fifth graders. We had about 100 kids in attendance. I got a flip chart and I said: “Tell me some things that describe somebody who’s homeless.” The kids just telling the bald truth, they're not trying to be politically correct: Crazy. Sick. Mean. AIDS. Drugs. Stealing. Dangerous. They just kept on with all of these things and so many of them were all the fear-driven stuff. They started throwing less and less and less up there and then you hear this little voice in the back say, "Human." I was like oh, oh, oh. That's my guy.
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