Hunting in the Shadows

A unique Oakland program coaxes homeless from the streets

Over the course of a program that can take as long as two years for each client, Operation Dignity attempts to deal with problems like substance abuse, mental illness, depression, and lack of job skills that contribute to homelessness. Ideally, clients are sent back into the world with a steady income and a solid foundation of sobriety. It is not a program for the lazy: Residents are required to do community work, attend therapy, pay rent, and deal with the "wreckage of the past," which can include anything from paying off old tickets to reconnecting with family members.

"If the homeless want help, they need to start helping themselves," says McElree, who admits that as many as half of his clients return to the street at least temporarily, often because they stop doing the things that got them sober in the first place -- attending recovery meetings and actively helping other people.

"The way you get out of yourself is to help someone else," McElree says. "By doing that, you set yourself free."

By 5:00 p.m., the hunt has moved to East Oakland, where the homeless are harder to find. They live along railroad tracks, in abandoned lots, boarded-up buildings, trying not to be discovered. McElree stops at what was once an all-woman camp under a bridge, where a man emerges bearing a three-day eviction notice. The man asks if McElree has a condom (he does). Apparently, the camp has gone coed.

At another camp tucked in the corner of a fenced-off lot, a man in blue flip-flops strolls out and asks McElree if he has any socks (he does not). They shake hands. Shaking hands is a big part of what McElree does. Anderson hands out food and blankets, his face beaming. He entered Operation Dignity two weeks before, and last smoked crack on Dec. 12, 1998.

"I enjoy this, helping out and all that," he says, claiming to have lost every job he ever had to cocaine, to have gone on binges that lasted for weeks and left him walking the streets like a zombie. "It was just a cycle, a vicious cycle that I'm still trying to break now. ... It was time to make a choice -- either die out there or pick myself up by my bootstraps and try to make a difference in my life."

As afternoon fades into evening, McElree makes what will be the last stop of the day -- the Alameda County Health Services Agency, where a half-dozen or so homeless have gathered on the steps by 6:30. One woman runs up and asks, "Where you been?"

Heading home, McElree figures he probably hasn't saved anybody: He normally waits until at least the sixth visit before trying to persuade people to come inside to one of Operation Dignity's shelters. As things stand, he's seen maybe 40 people over the course of the afternoon and given a day's supply of food to less than 1 percent of the estimated 4,500 to 5,000 homeless who reside in Oakland.

Nonetheless, his spirits seem lifted: "I think we made some people's lives better today, and it reminded me that, you know what, I made a commitment to them," he says. "They've been let down so many times that once you start helping them it's really important you don't abandon them. It's fun, huh? I have a blast.

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