Category Archives: St. Vincent DePaul Center

In a tough economy, no one is immune

A story today in the NY Times helped to gel some of my mounting concerns at Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Champion Workforce program. As a case worker for a Transitional Employee program that aides individuals in West Oakland who may have barriers to employment–I have observed a spectrum of persons out of work and desperate to become self-sufficient. The cases I see are as diverse from a Berkeley PH.d student unable to support his full family to a senior adult who’s last 10 years as a TV repairman has become an obsolete job. Of course I work with persons who have tough legal and substance abuse issues which bar them from jobs, but it’s hardly limited. No one, from the educated to experienced, is immune to experiencing the pangs of a recession. When many come into to see me, it’s their last straw–many are even shocked that their feet walked them into a social service agency. When when you’ve used up your resources,  looked everywhere for a job and are at risk of losing your housing, you don’t have the option not to try and see what a seriously understaffed employment program (‘m currently the only one running it–a whole other story) can offer you.


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They just keep on coming…

Finally. Peace and quiet in my office at Society of St. Vincent de Paul after a day of non-stop meetings, orientations, client intakes, police sirens, Job Club class, emails, setting up appointments and data entry in between. Earlier today I was on the verge of just melting into a pool of mush underneath my desk. I knew how stressed I was when while in Job Club class, I had to read a sentence multiple time over before its meaning registered.

But, alas. The day is coming to a close, and though I still am up to my eyeballs in new paperwork from orientation and data entry of transitional employees from the past 2 years, I feel like a lot was accomplished. I am trying hard to not to overlook those moments when I helped make someone’s day just a little bit better. I understand how important it is to crunch data and numbers for the organization that funds our Transitional Employee program, but I am also aware of how it affects the way I interact with clients. Showing of all of our hard work here is imperative, however I try to not let it be at the cost of building authentic relationships with the TEs–or even just walk-in clients who just need some brief, yet compassionate advice, or better yet, to know that they are being listened to.

Tomorrow will present an entirely new day of new clients with new problems. Half-way through this job, there have been a fair share of moments where I felt like just shutting down. But I never seem to do. Perhaps its the reminder that all staff here at SVdP work so hard. Maybe I secretly thrive off the chaos and continual changes. But mostly, I think I hold it together by reminding myself that it’s my responsibility to be here, for my mentors, teachers and family that raised me to reach this time in my life. But all and all, when the day ends, I’ll be returning to a nice home in a good neighborhood where I can expect a warm meal on a table surrounded by a supportive community. The volunteer paycheck may not be very attractive, but I’m learning to live with just what I need.

Here’s” a story recently published about the work I’ve been doing.

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Clients at SVdP lack bank accounts

Whenever I get to the “do you have a checking/savings account?” portion of a client assessment, I can usually anticipate a no in response. I have yet to stumble across one client out of the 60 some assessments I’ve recorded as having a bank account. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) surveyed of 54,000 American households and showed that “7.7 per cent were unbanked, which translates nationally to 9 million households – approximately 17 million adults”. In California alone:

  • Nationally, as many as 28 million people are unbanked
  • One in five Californians does not have a checking account
  • Nearly half of Californians do not have a savings account
  • The average unbanked worker will throw away more than $40,000 over a lifetime to cash checks and pay bills (from
  • SVdP works mostly with minorities and the FDIC survey reflected that, “21.7 per cent blacks do not have bank account, while 19.3 per cent of Hispanics are unbanked.”

    FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair acknowledges “Access to an account at a federally insured institution provides households with an important first step toward achieving financial security …” In addition to helping clients to achieve long-term employment, opening a bank account is an important step in budgeting and transitioning into a life with more security, especially when layoffs are ever-common.

    An article by a California Assests Fellow for the Bank of the America backs up this claim:

    The un-banked poor pay more to conduct their financial lives. Check cashing outlets typically charge between 2-3
    percent of the face value of a check. So, someone who makes $30,000 a year can pay $900 a year just to get their
    salary and pay their bills. But there are more profound costs to being un-banked, costs that aren’t readily
    Families without accounts don’t have a safe place to keep their money. They walk around with wads of cash in
    their pockets. Or they keep it at home in a coffee can. Robberies are more prevalent around check cashing
    outlets, according San Francisco police reports. And if people’s homes are broken into or there’s a fire, they may
    lose their life’s savings.
    Also, a bank account is the first step to financial security for many families. Without an account, it’s harder to get
    well-priced car loans, credit cards, or mortgages–the exact financial tools needed to climb up the economic
    ladder. Many families stay stuck on a different path–going to the pawn shops, pay day lenders, rent to own
    stores—where the interest rates can reach several hundred percent.

    To address this concern, the California Governor’s Office stepped in December 2007 to bridge  financial institutions and community groups statewide. “Bank on California,” is a key collaborative voluntary initiative working with the Governor’s Office. The initiative works to:  

    • Develop and market starter accounts with features that work for unbanked consumers.   
    • Educate Californians without bank accounts about the benefits of account ownership and encourage them to open accounts.
    • Help Californians build their money management skills. 
    • Form diverse coalitions of financial institutions, regulators, city mayors and nonprofits in key markets statewide to market the accounts to unbanked Californians.

    I am still locating how effective this initiative has been, or at least stats depicting its significance since implemented in 2007. PLease share any information you may have on this topic.

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    Ode to story-telling, home for the holidays

    Bim Willow, named after his talent for transforming willow trees into unique furniture, has hosted the Michigan Peace Fest on his ranch in Locota for the past 18 years. (June, 2007)

    It’s been a month since my dSLR camera broke. The holiday season has been kind in granting me the time and resources (I’m a broke AmeriCorps volunteer after all) to slow down and fix what needs fixing. Now with my camera ready to go, I’m motivated to hit the ground running when I get back to San Francisco. There is an endless supply of people and projects to write and photograph about, especially a community garden I, some folks from the SF Society of St. Vincent de Paul and a couple of  experienced permaculture designers are launching in the Richmond district this January.

    In the meantime, I’ve been spending my time at home in Illinois rejuvenating from a chaotic, challenging, yet empowering, last five months as a caseworker in Oakland, CA. The broken reality of the hundreds of job-less individuals that walk-in each month struggling to keep stable housing, care for sick relatives or expunge rehabilitating criminal charges have compelled me to be more diligent about taking a closer look at the intricate mosaics of personal stories. Committing myself to a year  as a underpaid caseworker in a financially struggling social service agency is exactly where I belong right now. It’s been an invaluable opportunity to be immersed in the real failings of a system that does not give able and willing employees a chance to work and support themselves and their families.

    I’ve been inspired in learning about techniques in documenting the everyday stories of people I work with. In addition to the videos from Media Storm, I’ve been plugging into audio narratives and  am excited to try recording a couple of my clients (with their and the Society’s consent) for this blog’s purposes. I really admire and respect what these media production groups and how they are appealing to National Public Radio.

    StoryCorps… an independent nonprofit project whose mission is to honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening.

    By recording the stories of our lives with the people we care about, we experience our history, hopes, and humanity. Since 2003, tens of thousands of everyday people have interviewed family and friends through StoryCorps. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to take home and share, and is archived for generations to come at the Library of Congress. Millions listen to our award-winning broadcasts on public radio and the Internet. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, creating a growing portrait of who we really are as Americans.”

    Long Haul Productions….documents stories of everyday lives, stories of people and communities in transition, and stories of ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things.

    When we choose a story, we’re really in it for the long haul: we spend months, sometimes years, getting to know our characters. These are documentaries that mark the course of human life: they’re inherently dramatic, immediate, and true. As such, they yield some of the most memorable programming in American media today, stories a thousand times more compelling than the sensational programs and news features that crowd television and radio, far removed from our everyday.”

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    Taking a step towards self-sufficiency

    I facilitated another orientation for the Champion Workforce program on Tuesday. Although this is a positive first step for the seven new clients who were in attendance, it’s also a bleak future given that the employment competition, especially for labor jobs, is fiercer than ever. I want to bring hope to those who come into SVDP and reward them for taking a step towards self-sufficiency, however it will be a long, and often daunting road to travel on.

    Who will create the jobs of the future? Business, government, you?

    Read more:

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    HOPE celebrates

    The HOPE (Health for Oakland’s People and Environment) Collaborative will be celebrating the launch of the three-year proposal on October 31 at Laney College.

    OAKLAND, Ca – The HOPE Collaborative was recently granted $1.2 million from the W.K Kellogg Foundation. They will mark the beginning of their implementation action plan at Laney College, on October 31 from 11 am – 3 pm. There will be healthy free food, plant give aways, music, spoken word and children’s activities. Representatives from the Oakland Mayor’s Office are expected to be present along with other dignitaries.

    The HOPE Collaborative is a group of organizations, institutions, and community residents that was formed to improve the health and quality of life in Oakland’s most vulnerable neighborhoods by transforming its food and fitness environments. “HOPE seeks to dramatically decrease the disparities amongst community ownership, health and education,” said Leon Davis, co-chair of HOPE. “This then,” Davis continued to say, “will also decrease disparities in crime, improve property value and allow our neighborhoods to become more resilient in dealing with the social problems that affect all of Oakland.”

    The HOPE Collaborative envisions: Having more vibrant Oakland neighborhoods that provide equitable access to affordable, healthy, locally grown food; safe and inviting places for physical activity and play; and sustainable, successful, local economies.

    The HOPE Collaborative welcomes all community members and organizations that share the vision of a vibrant, healthy Oakland to come and celebrate at Laney College, on October 31 from 11 am – 3 pm.

    Contact: Leon Davis 1-510-877-9256

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    The Friday sigh becomes a ride

    There’s no such thing as “just another day” at the Society of St. Vincent DePaul’s downtown Oakland campus. Every day contains new faces, stories and yesterday, a new thing–spit.

    I left work yesterday and a few blocks in was confronted with an unprovoked loogie from a disheleved looking woman who appeared to have been recently released from the hospital. With AIDS being rampant in this area, thankfully the majority of it landed on my backpack and skirt. I was too shocked to say anything else but “thank you?” before speedily walking across the street and into a restaurant to clean up.

    Just over a month since starting, working at SVdP has become a sort of love-hate dichtomy. I love the duties that come with being a case worker and serving some of Oakland’s most vulnerable, but I hate the extreme desperation and need that I’ve witnessed everyday in all kinds of degree. Yesterday as I listened and read the paperwork for a woman who was beat a coma lasting two months by her husband last year. Now she and her seven children finally found decent housing after losing everything. A petition was filed for St. Vincent de Paul to do a home visit for further assessing the mother and her children’s needs, from furniture to paying off hospital bills.

    Given the absolute horror of this woman’s case, I usually don’t have time to completely absorb. Before I know it, I’m on to another case. Thankfully this time it was  the good news of a Culinary alumnus, finally, after a 2 year wait, having her ticket drawn for Section 8 Housing.

    But at last it’ Friday, and the last Friday of the month at that, which means my first bike ride ever in SF’s Critical Mass.

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