It all began very simply. By chance two old friends met at the square in Sonoma, California, and decided to have lunch together. "But let’s not go out to lunch," one of them suggested. "Why don’t you bring a sandwich and come to my house. Then we can give the money we save to the homeless."
Out of that chance beginning Friends have been gathering monthly in the same spirit of care for homeless persons for more than seven years now. We call ourselves Friends of the Homeless, and we meet at Friends House, a Quaker retirement community in northern California, to hear from guest speakers up-to-date information on the myriad issues that affect our neighbors and near-neighbors, the homeless people of our community.
Our structure is simple. We meet promptly at noon on the second Monday of each month. Everyone brings a lunch. One of our two volunteer coordinators clerks the meeting, making brief announcements and introducing our speaker. We then listen to a speaker working with one or more aspects of homeless concerns. Our guests have included representatives of a great variety of nonprofit organizations, city and county officials (including the mayor), experts on legislative and housing issues, and homeless people themselves. There is time for questions, and our questions have become increasingly informed over the years.
We have no treasury. But at each meeting a paper bag is passed around—no one sees what anyone else gives—and the collection is given directly to the speaker for whatever nonprofit homeless program the speaker represents or chooses. Many members bring their checkbooks and we have contributed more than $34,000 thus far to the concerns represented.
Our meetings are lively. Many of the attenders from Friends House and Redwood Meeting have given their lives as professionals or volunteers in the fields of teaching, social work, and other forms of public service. For many, Friends of the Homeless provides our one opportunity to be in touch with the needs of our community. We are eager to be in touch with those needs. A number of us are in our 80s, and some faithful stalwarts in their 90s. One 97-year-old regularly pushed her walker across campus to be on hand for our meetings, and once when she couldn’t come, she called to see how she should make out her check.
Our attendance varies from month to month, usually from 15 to 25, but last month we had an all-time high of 34. We meet around a large square table and add extra chairs as needed. The group is co-sponsored by the Committee of Peace and Justice at Friends House and Redwood Forest Meeting. When we gather, except for the time for our speaker, the talk is nonstop.
The amount of contributions also varies from month to month. One time we gave more than $400 to make possible the reprinting of hundreds of guides to homeless resources. Another time members provided more than $700 to support a fine nonprofit agency in severe financial crisis. Individuals have also given substantial personal contributions to the work of the Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless and to individual agencies. In addition, we raised $10,000 to provide counseling resources as a special memorial to a former social worker in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco and her husband. This Sonoma couple inspired the formation of our group.
Perhaps our most important contribution is not a financial one. To the benefit of the wider community we lobby regularly for low-income housing. We discovered soon after we had begun to meet that the lack of affordable housing is crucially related to homelessness. We learned that whenever a promising low-income housing project was being considered, the proposed project met with opposition from neighborhood groups, real estate people, and other self-interested folk.
We try to be a voice in support of public interest and affordable housing projects that are needed in the wider community. When we first appeared at a Santa Rosa City Council meeting, a member greeted us with enthusiasm. "We’ve been waiting for this for a long time," she said. It was good news to her to have a group supporting, rather than opposing, the affordable housing so badly needed in our city.
When we appear at meetings of the City Council, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, the Planning Commissions, and other appropriate governmental agencies, one or more of our number are prepared to give testimony. The rest of us sit patiently—sometimes impatiently—for a chance to show our support for the proposed project.
Because most of us are retired, we can sit for three or four hours (on one occasion for five hours) waiting for the time when our concern comes up on the agenda, a luxury many younger folk do not have. Twenty or thirty of us can show up when we are needed and sometimes we carry cards signaling our support. At one memorable City Council meeting there were more Friends House people at the meeting than there were at home at Friends house.
In addition to lobbying, we do what we can to directly support agencies serving homeless people. We collect and sort large quantities of clothing and bedding to send to a family service group. Several of us volunteer regularly at nonprofit agencies. Many of us worked on a major census of the homeless population. Two of us serve on the board of the Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless. Three of us regularly attend providers meetings to stay in touch with the changing and relentlessly growing needs in our area.
I believe the model of Friends of the Homeless can be repeated in many places where a few concerned persons are willing to take responsibility for organizing and follow-up. Are such groups needed? Indeed, they are!