By DAVID SCHOLZ
MARTINEZ, Calif. – Like a postal carrier, Doug Stewart has ventured out on the coldest, hottest and wettest nights to make his rounds around Martinez and 16 other communities that dot Contra Costa County.
His customers don’t have addresses. They are the homeless. Some have chosen to live on the streets, while there are others who’ve taken this path due to unfortunate circumstances.
Nonetheless, for 12 years, Stewart has headed up the Contra Costa Homeless Outreach, committed to providing a humane touch to a part of humanity others opt not to see. Martinez has been the biggest contract for Outreach, followed by Richmond and Concord.
“We gave the county 24-hour services,’’ said Stewart. “All 12 years I worked every holiday.’’
“I love to work with the homeless; I loved to get out at night,’’ he continued.
Whether it was a badly needed pair of warm socks and a blanket on frigid nights, toiletries like a tooth brush and paste, refreshing bottles of water to whet the parched when the Mercury had spiked, or simply an inspiring thought to keep someone going, Stewart was there. And, four years ago, Michael Callanan joined his cause.
Now, as Stewart steps aside, Callanan will take the reigns. But it won’t be the same.
Effective June 30, as the Martinez Tribune goes to press, Callanan’s focus will lie solely on serving the homeless of Martinez, and then for only three days a week – 15 hours total – every other night. Funding for his position will come from a three-year $90,000 grant from Tesoro.
“As it stands, many cities are working on homelessness individually and were relying on Doug Stewart through Homeless Outreach to assist with the problem. Now that he is leaving it may leave other jurisdictions without the ability to provide outreach services, which will have an impact of making the response to homelessness a general response, rather than an individual one,’’ said Martinez Police Chief Manjit Sappal.
Stewart advised county officials six months ago that he would be closing up shop. But nothing came of the announcement, he said.
He suggested officials have continued receiving grants, but nothing significant has come from those funds over the years. He pointed to addressing the environmental impact of homelessness, for example, that has resulted from those who have made places along local creeks their homes. But there was little or no follow up.
Acknowledging the housing crisis in the county, Stewart said, “We need people in there with some fresh ideas. The homeless will be affected more than they realize.”
While his relationship with county officials working on homelessness issues had worn thin, hardly was that the case with the Martinez Police Department.
“They have a good group of guys who treated me like one of their own,’’ Stewart said. “I have been through four chiefs and every one of them was excellent.’’
With such a great relationship with the department, Stewart lamented he might be letting them down. But in his heart he knows the person who will continue his legacy is the right person for the job.
“Michael (Callanan) is a decent human being,’’ he said. “Martinez is lucky to have him. He will give Martinez more than three days a week. I bet my life on it. He will not miss rainy nights. He will do me proud,’’ Stewart said.
A testament to Callanan’s dedication, Stewart noted his compadre worked for two years without a paycheck.
And, should Callanan start to slip up or slack off, “I will fly back and kick his butt.’’
Just as with Callanan, if the police department ever needs his assistance again, Stewart said he’s just a phone call away.
“If the police chief called me sixth months from now and asked me to come back for a week, I would book the first flight back,’’ he said.
Grant to help boost homeless outreach efforts
A three-year $90,000 grant from Tesoro will go a long way in sustaining the good works to combat homelessness issues that have taken place locally over the past 12 years, according to Martinez Police Manjit Sappal.
The funding from Tesoro will specifically be used to pay the entire cost to contract with Michael Callanan to provide outreach services throughout the week as his predecessor, Doug Stewart, was doing for the homeless population.
“I think that what is working well for us is that we have been able to coordinate with Michael Callanan to pick up where Doug left off,’’ Sappal said.
Prior to Tesoro stepping up with its grant, the city had been budgeting $30,000 each year for homeless initiatives, and this was used to contract with the now-defunct Contra Costa Homeless Outreach. This entity is now identified as Homeless Outreach LLC.
With Tesoro’s grant now covering expenses for Callanan, some city funds will go to cover the purchase of BART, bus, train and taxicab tickets for people that may need transportation after being released from the county jail, Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, or in the event they may have become stranded after taking the train to Martinez.
Other city funds will be used to purchase hygiene kits, food if needed, and for hotel stays in certain circumstances such as when police or outreach personnel encounter any homeless families with no place to go for the night.
“As it stands, we have been using officers on an overtime basis each week to follow up on homeless individuals and provide foot patrol in locations where we have people camping out. We have also been utilizing overtime to follow up on homeless encampments by providing outreach, noticing people that stay, and cleaning the encampments after they have been noticed,’’ said Sappal.
He acknowledged the homelessness issue is complex and there are no easy answers. Martinez being the county seat for Contra Costa County also means it will have a higher exposure to homelessness-related issues.
Callanan will be working in the evenings after his shift at the Concord Shelter providing most services in the evenings with a focus on building relationships with people, finding out what assistance they specifically need, and coordinating in getting them services. The officers assigned to work with the homeless will be doing the same across the week in an effort to compliment what Callanan is doing and work with him to provide outreach to those that need it.
“We have to treat homelessness as an individual problem rather than as a general problem. In other words, people are homeless for a variety of reasons and need assistance with different things in their lives. We have to figure out what ails them and find the specific assistance they need. Once we are able to do that, we need to foster a relationship to help convince them to get services,’’ Sappal said.
“I think that many people sometimes forget that being homeless is not a crime and we cannot compel people to get services. While many may refuse help, if we are persistent and can build a level of trust with them, we have greater potential to convince them to help themselves,’’ he continued.
One area that Sappal hopes to focus on is collaboration with leadership from other cities to work with the county to come up with a better understanding of how they can make an impact on homelessness, short-term and long-term. The goals of getting homeless off the streets needs to include creating more shelter spaces, having access to affordable housing, and a mechanism for helping others that suffer from a variety of problems like mental illness, substance abuse, or a combination of the two.
“Since this is a regional problem, we need a regional approach,’’ he said.
Callanan echoed this sentiment.
“It is not just one person, it is a conglomeration,’’ he said of the effort to address homelessness. “It takes many people working together.’’
County says it’ll take more proactive approach to homelessness issues
As the debate rages on for how to address the homelessness problem in Contra Costa County, the initial steps leading toward solutions are now being taken.
Lavonna Martin, chief of homeless services for Contra Costa County, is now seeking proposals to use funds totaling $1 million, including $500,000 from the federal government, that will work together for a coordinated entry system approach to address issues at the front and therefore help break the cycle of homelessness in the future.
Under the newly envisioned program, outreach teams and crisis call centers would refer individuals into CARE – Coordinated Assessment Resource Centers – that in turn will provide a variety of immediate support services. From this point, housing priorities will be determined about what is best for the client, Martin said.
And, the evening outreach piece, which Doug Stewart was so instrumental in delivering for 12 years through Contra Costa Homeless Outreach, will be a component of the newly envisioned program.
“I see Contra Costa Homeless Outreach as a valuable partner in our care of the homeless,’’ said Martin. “It is sad to see (Stewart) go.’’
Under the future arrangement, Martin expects different groups possessing their own areas of expertise to come forward with proposals.
Ahead of decisions in August on proposals that are submitted, Martin noted that Anka’s Project Hope, another long-standing program, will continue. Project Hope is a day-time outreach program, serving other parts of the county, that connects with people early in the morning before they get moving.