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.

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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