BOSS and Albany High School students host homeless resource fair in Oakland

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“We’re wrapping up already,” came a message from Christine Lias early Friday afternoon, although the East Bay Homeless Connect Resource Fair was scheduled to keep going until 3 p.m. Organizers said a crowd had gathered outside Mosswood Recreation Center, where the fair was held, the previous night. “By the time I arrived at 7 a.m., there were maybe 400 people waiting to come in already,” said Teslim Ikharo, the event organizer and director of business enterprise for BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency). BOSS is a non-profit based in Berkeley that since 1971 has offered street outreach, crisis intervention and employment services to homeless people to help them become self-sufficient.

BOSS staffers joined hands with Albany High School students to help some 1,000 people address a variety of health and social needs at their first homeless resource fair held in Oakland. Based on an event the organization holds in San Francisco called the Homeless Project Connect, executive director Donald Frazier said he decided it was time to try the project in the East Bay.

Volunteers from Albany High brought clothing to give away and cooked a buffet of food. Doctors from Alameda County Health Services offered free eye, blood pressure and glucose level exams, and dentists gave free checkups. A group from Cal-PEP (California Prostitute Education Project) offered free HIV testing. With an ID, people could sign up for free cell phones. Members of the Alameda County Registrar of Voters Office were there to sign people up to vote. Volunteers offered haircuts, and a Berkeley student group offered foot cleaning and massages. Temporary housing services were available in the form of hotel vouchers, East Bay Legal Aid counselors were present to help with identification needs, and a booth was set up for veterans looking for assistance with housing and social welfare. “We also provided music and entertainment,” said Ikharo.

According to Ikharo, the organization had initially expected 100 to 150 people to arrive, and had prepared around 500 portions of food, personal hygiene kits and handout resources that included flyers and hotel vouchers. “We ran out of everything early on—that’s another way to estimate the number of the people who showed up at the event,” said Lias, the grants and individual giving manager for BOSS, explaining the early wrap-up. An official headcount will be released later this week, after all providers have tallied the number of people who signed up for services.

The great number of participants surprised the BOSS staff. “There was more than 400 people—about 1,000—and they were outside banging on the door. Some were camped outside waiting for services,” said Lias, who added that the need for housing services and hotel vouchers in the East Bay is enormous. “These people are desperately in need of help.”

“The solution to homelessness is housing,” said Frazier. “It’s quite simple. You have to ask yourself, ‘Why isn’t the political will there for it to happen?’ It’s because the population that we’re speaking of doesn’t have a vote.” Frazier said BOSS aims to give a voice to the homeless population and to articulate their concerns to local government and policymakers.

Although the event was held in Oakland, Ikharo noted that BOSS welcomed homeless people from all over the East Bay. “We had people coming from a 2-hour drive away; so many people were here and ready to receive resources.”

A raffle for Section 8 housing vouchers was a draw for many people, but leaving without one was disappointing, several said. “I came to get a housing voucher, but I didn’t get it,” said Leda, who declined to give her last name. Leda is 60 years old and said she has been homeless for two years since she and her husband were evicted from their apartment in Oakland. “I live out on the street, you know, so it’s hard,” she said.

A woman named Tia, who also declined to give her last name, said she also showed up because of the promise of a housing voucher. She said she sleeps on the streets and at friends’ houses when she can, while her children stay with her grandparents. “I’ve got six kids,” Tia said. “It’s hard. Some people give up, but you just have to keep fighting.”

“As long as the kids are safe and warm, that’s all I can ask for,” she continued.

Frazier said the goal of homeless connect projects are to make the homeless aware of services available in their community, and to bring a variety of service providers to them under one roof. “From a political and philosophical perspective,” he added, “this should really put a spotlight on the need, so people would see this. It’s not just the one person you step over or avoid in a downtown area—that the problem is real, it’s pervasive, and it can be solved.”

Friday’s project was initiated by students from Albany High School, when members of a campus business club approached Ikharo with ideas for giving back to the community. “There was a lot of enthusiasm, and within a month’s time to prepare, we organized the providers, the space, and got our internal team together to coordinate the volunteers,” said Ikharo.

The students approached animal hospitals, hotels and hairdressing schools and asked for them to help the homeless by providing services at the event or financial support. “It was a really interesting experience, because it gave us a chance to talk to a lot of local businesses and fundraise for a cause,” said Albany High student Suppiya Low, 17.

“I don’t want to be cliché, but it was really nice just seeing how happy these people were” to receive help, said Judy Sung, 16.

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