July 5, 2006 > Flagg Street House
Flagg Street House
by Steve Warga
What comes to mind with the words "homeless shelter?" Visions of derelicts, maybe, sleeping off a bender on portable cots; or stoop-shouldered, bedraggled men and women dressed in filthy rags; or dull, vacant stares while waiting in a soup line? Maybe all these images, maybe more, have come to be associated with the sometimes discouraging work of putting a roof over the heads of some of society's castaways. Perhaps this is why the trim, neat house on Flagg Street in Hayward seems such a pleasant contradiction. Sure, it is a homeless shelter, Hayward's only all-male facility, but it is not a homeless shelter in the traditional sense.
For over 25 years, this former private residence has opened its doors to any homeless man without means but willing to work and abide by a strict set of house rules of conduct. Those rules outline a series of expectations wrapped within a 90-day program of support and services that culminate in re-introduction to productive living, complete with housing and a job. Residents put forth the effort; society-at-large shares in the reward.
Does it work? Ask any one of the volunteer counselors who graduated from Flagg Street House and hear what they say. Or, pose the question to a few of the 120 or so residents from last year's residents. About 65 of every 100 obtain jobs and housing within the 90-day period. Referred to as "customers" by staff, many Flagg Street residents leave within weeks of arrival and the vast majority never come back, except to visit or lend a hand. Some quick arithmetic shows that well in excess of 2,500 men have passed through the doors of the home since its inception in 1981.
Executive Director Cherise Abel describes the program as "a journey to self-sufficiency." Attractive, lively, informed and dedicated, Abel greets visitors and friends with a sparkling smile and a rich, ready laugh. Nine years at Flagg Street seem only to have enhanced her youthful vigor. She's rightly proud of the work performed here; knowing they are making a difference - a source of immense satisfaction. Program Director Jessica Bryant displays all the same qualities. A quick tour of the home includes an introduction to staffer Laurie Williams who could be mistaken as a triplet of the first two women. All glow with enthusiasm and warmth. The secret of Flagg Street's success requires no further analysis.
Except for a small "Office" sign in the lower right-hand corner of the house, nothing outside gives away the dwelling's purpose. It's a two-story, split entry house, painted in pastel greens and fronted by a low picket fence in matching color. Inside, every square inch of floor and wall space is devoted to the demanding task of housing, feeding, cleaning, counseling and cheering 20 full-time customers. Sturdy furnishings, worn, but neat and clean, belie any indication of even casual neglect. In the kitchen, heavy-duty, industrial appliances have been shoehorned into small spaces, much like a navy submarine's galley. In fact, the navy term "shipshape" aptly describes every aspect of Flagg Street House. The fit is tight, but with discipline and dedication, it's smooth sailing most of the time.
Flagg Street House is owned and operated by Human Outreach Agency, Inc. (HOA), a non-profit, public benefit corporation. Most of their funding comes from three sources; Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA); County of Alameda; and the city of Hayward. Even so, they are always in need of further donations to help fund improvements, repairs and additional programming. Contributions of cash, property or vehicles are all tax-deductible. In addition, they welcome volunteers.
So, what comes to mind now when you think "homeless shelter?"
For more information, call (510) 582-1172, visit www.hoaca.org. or email firstname.lastname@example.org.