Healthy Choices

Sacramento’s homeless get a big boost at Southside Park during annual fair

One of the most popular services at the sixth annual Sacramento Steps Forward festival for the homeless at Southside Park on Friday was yoga – not to mention the free hugs offered by Zack Pasillas, outreach director of the Yoga Seed Collective.

Homeless people are stressed-out people and could use a little help learning to breathe deeply from their cores. Stretching on a yoga mat helps soothe sore lower backs, which can tighten up without a good night’s slumber.

And the hugs? They’re offered because research shows hugs release oxytocin, a natural hormone that unleashes a feeling of well-being.

“Think of it like the warmth of a mother holding a small child,” says Pasillas, a founder of the Yoga Seed Collective at 14th and E streets. “A hug goes a long way to making you feel good.”

Yoga was just one of the 50 social services, agencies, giveaways and guidance booths offered to the 500 or so homeless people who helped turn Southside Park into a boisterous fairground of sorts Friday afternoon. Performers played original music in the amphitheater; cooks prepared barbecue chicken for lunch; screeners checked peoples’ eyesight and teeth; stylists cut hair; and a nonprofit group remarkably founded by an 8-year-old boy gave away thick, warm socks.

People could choose from a small field of shoes lined up like neat, straight little rows in a community garden, the color of toothbrushes they wanted, the style of collars and leashes they wanted for their dogs, even the grade of shampoos and conditioners they preferred.

Community clinics were present, as was the state health insurance exchange, clean needle exchange and a group in need of warm clothes for prostitutes ready to leave the streets. Condoms and lube tubes were offered as “lifesavers” for avoiding sexually transmitted diseases.

Former homeless people like Victor Contreras, 52, now a human services program planner, were answering a flood of questions about health care and taking Medi-Cal applications. “People don’t have access to information on computers, so we have to do a little bit more outreach,” Contreras said.

And a pet care center allowed people to drop off their dogs while visiting the dozens of information booths set up by the Capitol Region Connect group responsible for the event. There, Happy, Scrappy, Christy and Soda Pop drew a crowd of canine-lovers while their human companions set off in search of assistance.

The things that seemed to be missing on Friday were stigma – and shame. Comfort in numbers, trust and a sense that organizations were genuinely trying to help may have been responsible for producing the positive vibes.

“I’ll get it back,” Donald Triano, 42, said of his life. “I’m waiting to get into transitional housing.” Describing himself as a semi-homeless shelter-dweller, Triano said he lost his footing after a job loss, his girlfriend walked out and he started drinking. “It took me a while, but I’m figuring this out,” he said confidently. Already, his blood pressure had lowered, he said.

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, said at a news conference that helping the homeless makes a whole lot of sense, since “It costs $30,000 to $40,000 a year to not help people get back on their feet on a permanent basis.” The sum includes cycling people in and out of jail and other government programs, public assistance and lost productivity. “I salute and thank you for your commitment,” Dickinson said to the audience and helpers.

The Rev. Rick Cole of the Capital Christian Center said battling homelessness is a task to be taken seriously in Sacramento. An estimated 2,600 people are without a permanent roof over their heads, a 7.6 percent increase since 2011, Cole said. The number of homeless families jumped a substantial 47 percent since 2009, he said.

On the flip side, the unemployment rate in Sacramento took a welcome hit on Friday, with officials reporting more than 80 hires from a group of homeless who underwent special job training, interview preparation and clothing makeovers. Vision Service Plan was responsible for more than 50 of the hires.

One of the newly employed was a beaming Zamon Wynne, 30, who will start on the VSP production line assembling eyeglasses “and begin working my way up the ladder,” he said.

Wynne nailed the position while thinking of his role as a father to his 9-year-old son. “I told myself I was confident and worth hiring,” he said. “I decided to get a hold of my life again.”