When she saw Juan, a homeless former athlete, for the first time, what Monica Ribeiro noticed was his dog. As she ran her errands that day, she picked up some food for Juan’s pet and when she brought it to him, Juan asked for a favor: He had two job interviews coming up. Would she be willing to watch the dog while he went to look for work? Ribeiro agreed.

They began talking and Ribeiro began sizing Juan up.

“I just looked at him, you know, really looked at him,” Ribeiro said. She saw a man with a neatly organized cart, good manners and a small dog. More importantly, she saw someone relatively clean who “wasn’t completely deranged yet.”

She thought of her empty guest room and toyed with the idea of inviting not just the dog, but Juan too.

Ribeiro talked with her husband.  “She usually has a pretty good read on people,” he said. “I think she probably sees a little bit of her brother in him.”  Ribeiro’s brother is a talented musician, but he has long struggled to support himself and find steady employment.   Ribeiro had also already experimented with altruistic hosting: She once let a painter who had worked for her stay in an extra room when he was threatened with homelessness. He had used the time well, finding another job and moving on within a few months.

Plus, her husband added,  “It’s really no skin off my nose to do it. I wouldn’t want to move him in, but if I can help someone get back on their feet that seems like the right thing to do.”

So Ribeiro’s husband agreed once again to have a guest, and Juan moved into a converted storage room on the bottom floor of their 3-story house near 21st and South Van Ness. He has a window and a hot plate, as well as access to a bathroom.

The invitation was the beginning of a relationship that would give Ribeiro a close look at the city’s policies on homeless and the mindset of at least one homeless man.  Although she lives near one of the frequent homeless encampments on Shotwell street, her relationship with the men and women housed inside the tents is minimal.  She usually gives out small items, but rarely engages in conversation.

Ribeiro has no opinion on the encampments, but from her experience with Juan, she has seen firsthand how difficult it is to get off the streets. Within a  month of knowing him, she became his advocate, reading through complicated documents with him and trying to decipher applications for public aid.

“It’s really convoluted, and to expect a person who is really hungry and without sleep to go through this process is really unreasonable,” Ribeiro said.

Take the process of getting aid through the County Adult Assistance Program, known as CAAP.   Juan applied for a cash grant.  The amount, said Pamela Tebo, the director of CAAP, is “determined by both state or local law” and a decision can be appealed.

Juan applied for a cash grant through the county’s Personal Assisted Employment Services program, hoping for $444, the maximum aid available through this grant. He got $39.27.

In part, this discrepancy may reflect confusion about the maximum amount.  The $444 is the maximum value of aid given out by the county  — not necessarily the maximum cash grant.  It might include food assistance and housing support. Juan also accidentally agreed to accept housing during his intake interview, even though he was staying with Ribeiro, which also may have reduced his grant.

Juan’s room in Ribeiro’s house. Photo by Laura Wenus

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said the process is designed to prevent people from easily accessing public assistance.

“Same thing with folks that are trying to get disability, they make it really complicated so that people give up,” Friedenbach said.

Four programs through the county’s assistance program are in place to assist San Francisco’s most destitute residents, and it can be difficult for clients to figure out where to apply, Friedenbach said.

All public assistance requires not only an ID (which public programs can help clients obtain), but some require bank statements and a demonstration of income. Depending on the program, clients can be required to prove they are working or looking for a job, which often means extensive paperwork. For aid through the General Assistance portion of CAAP, an applicant may also be required to do Workfare hours.

What’s more, increasing frustration over groups of homeless people that migrate around Shotwell, Capp and Stevenson streets has led to abatement efforts that only complicate any application process.

When police issue a citation to a homeless person, the chances of that person being able to pay the fine are relatively slim. The result is the accumulation of unpaid citations, which leads to a warrant, which bars a client from getting housing — effectively keeping them on the streets as a result of having been on the street.

“Never ever has [enforcement by citation] led to people exiting homelessness,” Friedenbach said.

Spared that complication, Ribeiro is still worried that people like Juan, who are capable and motivated, often fall through the cracks when aid is prioritized for even needier people. Though Juan has no more than a high school education, he has worked several different jobs and is familiar with the job application process.

Friedenbach is concerned that the focus of public programs is not on helping the homeless become self-sufficient.

“Sometimes you can get help with jobs through [public assistance] but frankly, I think there’s very little emphasis on employment in San Francisco,” she said. “There’s a small amount of money expended on it and it’s a very small number of programs.”

From the start, it was abundantly clear to Juan, Ribeiro and her husband that work was the ticket out of his situation. But getting a job is easier said than done. For Juan, empty promises and pride have been two major stumbling blocks, according to Ribeiro.

Job leads dried up when managers who agreed to an interview suddenly became unavailable and postponed meetings indefinitely.

“He showed up, they weren’t there, he showed up, they weren’t there…it’s too much of the same thing … It seems they just want him to give up,” Ribeiro said.

Ribeiro, who says she is no bleeding heart liberal, also realizes that Juan can sometimes be his own worst enemy. To her dismay, he condescends to her about her benevolence and intelligence “for a woman,” re-reads and takes notes on the Bible instead of familiarizing himself with the computer someone donated to him, and has been turning down offers for help with things like resume editing.

The cooking area near Juan's temporary room. Photo by Laura Wenus
The cooking area near Juan’s temporary room. Photo by Laura Wenus

“I’m just so frustrated,” Ribeiro said. “He’s not arrogant, but by the behavior that he shows in refusing to get the help from people, maybe he thinks that he knows better. There was someone from a staffing agency, an editor…he turned them all down.”

But maybe the help offered wasn’t what Juan needed. Many programs that help the disenfranchised find jobs require clients to attend resume writing and other preparation classes, Friedenbach said.

“Sometimes job readiness is cookie cutter stuff that doesn’t necessarily apply to everybody,” she said. “If you’re more advanced, maybe going through the job readiness isn’t appropriate for you. But you would have to do that for two whole weeks.”

Job readiness or no, after weeks of exasperation for Ribeiro, Juan struck pay dirt. He found a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant in SoMa. He also managed to adjust his information with the County’s assistance program, increasing his cash grant to what Ribeiro estimates is about $300.

Ribeiro and her husband expect that soon, like the painter they helped, Juan will have enough cash to find an apartment of his own.  Unsettled by the fact that he seems to think they are now friends and might overstay his welcome, they’ve given Juan until February to move on.

“I think she kind of figures that this will be like him,” Ribeiro’s husband said, referring to their earlier guest. “All it took was enough time to find a new place and save a little money. She kind of imagines that she could duplicate that.”

It looks like she just might.

Juan (who declined to comment for this story) and Monica’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.

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  1. “When I take in a homeless man, they call me a saint. When I ask why he is homeless, they call me a Communist.”