Erika D. Smith

Op Image: Dealing with homelessness face to face

David Elliott, a homeless services navigator with Sacramento Steps Forward, talks to Tom, a homeless man who had fallen asleep in Marshall Park. Elliott and other navigators walk the streets five days a week to make sure homeless people have the services they need.
David Elliott, a homeless services navigator with Sacramento Steps Forward, talks to Tom, a homeless man who had fallen asleep in Marshall Park. Elliott and other navigators walk the streets five days a week to make sure homeless people have the services they need. esmith@sacbee.com

He looked and smelled like the kind of guy most people would want to avoid.

Slumped over on a bench at Marshall Park, sleeping soundly as the sun was just starting to creep across the Wednesday sky, he clearly was high. Or maybe just drunk. His clothes tattered and dirty. His possessions in two red cloth bags beside him.

For those of us with homes and stable lives, it might be easy to write off this guy as less than human. To walk by and pretend he doesn’t exist.

But not David Elliott.

He’s one of about a dozen homeless services “navigators” who, as part of a larger outreach effort led by Sacramento Steps Forward, spend five days a week talking to people just like that guy on the bench. You’ll see them in their blue shirts.

The navigators exist as a bridge, identifying and then connecting homeless people with the services they desperately need but often don’t get. The program isn’t new, but it has grown recently to cover not only downtown and midtown, but the rest of the city and unincorporated county.

Permanent housing is, of course, the goal. But the navigators start with the immediate barriers, such as ensuring homeless people have ID cards and access to mental health care. A Neighborhood Connect meeting Saturday at Trinity Cathedral Church is a one-stop shop for that.

Along the way, the navigators build relationships.

They learn who has a substance abuse problem, who just got out of jail or a hospital. They figure out where people scavenge for recycling to make a few bucks. And they defuse conflicts, gently breaking up rowdy camps before the cops do, and talking down residents frustrated with homeless people relieving themselves in their neighborhoods.

It’s a tough job. But it’s a service that’s sorely needed in neighborhoods where tensions between the homeless and residents and business owners often run high.

It’s good that we have people like Elliott, who on Wednesday patiently roused Tom.

“Hi,” he said, waiting for a few grunts to pass. “How long have you been homeless?”

It took a few minutes, but Tom opened up. Then, surprisingly, he wouldn’t shut up, prattling on for 45 minutes about everything from the cheapest burgers to the kindness of strangers.

“Does $1 and a cigarette make a difference?” Tom said. “Yes, it does.”

“Saying hello can make a difference,” Elliott agreed.

A while later, as we walked away, Elliott fished more fliers out of his pocket for the Neighborhood Connect meeting. Tom took one, although he didn’t seem excited about showing up.

“Sometimes all people need is an ear,” the navigator said. “And sometimes that’s all we can do.”

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