Hunting in the Shadows

A unique Oakland program coaxes homeless from the streets

The hunt begins around midafternoon at 35th and Peralta streets in West Oakland. Under a freeway overpass draped with ivy, Alex McElree steps out of a converted ambulance. A stout, gray-haired 52-year-old in a black jacket and faded brown loafers, McElree points to a trio of shopping carts filled with foam pads, old blankets, and flattened cardboard boxes.

Perhaps a half dozen people call this stretch of sidewalk home on any given night, he says, although at 3:30 p.m. it is still early and no one is around. A "canner" makes his way south toward Alliance Metals, dragging a pair of shopping carts behind him like a cowboy leading horses to water. Empty bottles clank and rattle as the man pulls his carts over rough asphalt, his back straining.

"That man's working his tail off for pennies," McElree shouts over the roar of the freeway. "Anyone who thinks being homeless or being poor isn't hard work can kiss my ass."

McElree is the founder and executive director of Operation Dignity, a unique, Oakland-based housing and outreach program that is staffed by current and former clients -- namely, once-homeless veterans. Hunting the homeless is just one of McElree's many chores, although it is his favorite. When he can, he scours the streets, tracking down more than 1,000 people a year and plying them with whatever goods and services they will accept.

On this day, McElree will focus on building trust with the homeless people he can find. Accompanying him is Scott Anderson, 39, an affable formerly homeless man who, over the course of the afternoon, will hand out blankets, sleeping bags, army-issue rations, sandwiches, nutrition bars, and bottled water to the people McElree finds.

Sometimes, McElree says, people sell the sleeping bags at army-surplus stores. But he keeps giving them out anyway and tries not to judge. He himself has done worse: "When I was ripping and running it was just part of the deal," he says. "Stealing, you name it, I was doing it."

From Peralta, the ambulance travels west through semi-industrial flatlands marked by high fences and gleaming coils of razor wire. McElree leans forward, elbows against the steering wheel, pointing out crack houses, an old S/M club, various persons who he believes are engaged in illegal activities. He pulls into dead ends where, as often as not, people once lived but don't anymore.

At a Caltrans yard set in a dead space where Interstates 80 and 580 merge a hundred feet overhead, McElree stops and tweaks the siren. A blue tarp pulled over the doorway of Building No. 7 is drawn back, and a few men come ambling out to collect their goods.

Near Louise and 34th, he nods toward the spot where he once nearly ran over a man passed out in the street. "That's where the guy usually sleeps," McElree says, pointing to what appears to be a heap of trash near the curb. He looks closer, then realizes, "That's our sleeping bag." The sleeping bag moves: "He is here."

Outreach is but a small part of Operation Dignity, a comprehensive program designed primarily to help homeless veterans gain permanent housing and financial independence. Normally, the people McElree visits are happy to see him -- last winter, he estimates, he distributed some 5,000 military meals-ready-to-eat, 700 blankets, and 300 sleeping bags -- although this isn't always the case.

"Sometimes we take some pretty verbal shots," he says. "As long as they don't hit me, I don't care. ... Some of them are very angry they're living out here. They're scared, and their fear comes out angry."

It is a point of view McElree knows well. He returned from three tours of duty in Vietnam with a drinking problem and an undiagnosed panic disorder. He stayed with his sister and brother-in-law until he got drunk, assaulted his sister's husband, and shortly found himself on the streets. He sobered up two years later, remained clean for eight years, then had a glass of wine one day with lunch. Soon, he was having one or two drinks after work, then three or four, "And the next thing you know, I was off and running," he says.

After another round of homelessness, alcoholism, and a three-gram-a-day cocaine habit, McElree says he sobered up again in 1985. Then things really got bad. He suffered a heart attack, a nervous breakdown, and suicidal depression, the last of which still plagues him.

"I would have just as soon had my name be on the wall," he says. "I would have rather died in Vietnam than come home and be treated the way we were treated. Then, I decided that I had to do something about it. I couldn't let that kill me."

McElree founded Operation Dignity in 1993, renting and refurbishing a five-bedroom house with money out of his own pocket. Since then, the nonprofit organization has grown to include a 61-bed facility in downtown Oakland, 22 beds in West Oakland, with another 67-bed facility for both families and individuals planned at the Alameda Naval Air Station next year.

With an annual budget of approximately $750,000, comprising Veterans Administration funds, grants, private donations and rent paid by clients, Operation Dignity provides both short- (7- to 21-day) and long-term housing for more than 600 persons a year. Prospective residents arrive via referrals from other service providers and through McElree's outreach efforts, and waiting lists are rare.

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