The telltale signs of homelessness are with us every day in the East Bay.
A panhandler on a freeway offramp holds a cardboard sign. A woman in tattered clothes and old tennis shoes sits alone on a park bench, or a haggard figure under a head of wild hair pushes a grocery cart filled with aluminum cans.
Everyone knows about homelessness, but it's an uncomfortable topic of conversation.
So Thursday morning at the Antioch City Council chamber marked a rare occasion, when about four dozen community leaders and residents trained their focus solely on the phenomenon of homelessness. How can the disenfranchised be restored? What does it take to reach them?
Featured speaker Pamela Singh, project coordinator of Local Integrated Networks of Care, shared the stage with Lavonna Martin, acting director of Contra Costa County Homeless Services. What made their presentations special were the hopeful words they shared.
They talked of collaborative efforts by government agencies, nonprofits and volunteer groups to streamline access to support services. They explained that food, shelter and medical care address only the first, most basic level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Counseling, job training and transitional housing must follow.
Martin said it's a mistake to think that one solution fits all: "There are newly homeless who may only need a little assistance to get back on their feet. There are homeless who've been out there a long time and need different services."
Singh said the homeless population spans every demographic -- men, women, families, single parents, children. About 30 percent are younger than 18 and an alarming number are military veterans. Some have experienced financial crises, some have addiction issues, some suffer from mental imbalance or emotional distress. Understanding a person's needs is the first step to making him or her whole.
The good news is that Singh is helping coordinate assessment programs that identify needs and make dozens of regional services accessible. The better news is that this effort is spreading throughout the county. She was invited to speak in Antioch only a day after speaking in Walnut Creek. Concord is already on board, and more cities are expected to participate.
"The big thing has been getting everyone's buy-in," she said. "One group may not know what another can do, but here's a system where they can all work together."
County officials estimate about 4,000 homeless are in Contra Costa, roughly the same number as nine years ago, and many live in encampments that are routinely rousted by authorities when residents complain. The county "abated" 78 such camps in 2012. Too often the result has been relocation and little else.
The goal now is not only to assist those in need, but to prevent others from suffering a similar fate.
"If we have job layoffs in the community, how do we get services to individuals before they fall into a homeless state?" Singh said, noting that help is available to those on the brink. Martin noted that the mortgage foreclosure crisis that ravaged East County is a primary reason why the homeless there now outnumber those in Central or West County.
Thursday's meeting was about understanding the dilemma, why it happens and how it can be remedied. It was about dealing with a discomforting topic.
It's the kind of conversation that's been avoided too often.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.