Opening Doors to Dignity

A glimpse inside

By: Nathan Falstreau

Pull the door shut and come inside,” I said to my friend Jacob as he sidestepped through the opening and leaned against the wall. “Does it have a lock?” It shut tight with a whoosh and a click from the electronic locking mechanism in the handle.

”Hear anything?” he replied.

I sat on the bed and listened intently but could barely make out faint sounds of MUNI brakes and the hustle and bustle from nearby Market Street.

“It’s quiet,” I said.

My shoulders relaxed a bit, and it felt safe — familiar. I envisioned the home’s first occupant performing this same experiment upon their move-in and the relief that comes with having a space of your own to regroup and begin to heal. I remembered how it made me feel the first time I closed and locked a door behind me after sleeping on the streets of San Francisco in winter. And I reflected on the family and community that ultimately helped me move through homelessness and thrive again.

“This is really going to make a difference,” Jacob agreed.

It was my first time seeing firsthand the potential impact of Dignity Moves at its inaugural site at 33 Gough St. in San Francisco. There was an energy about the space, a mix of calmness and enthusiastic hurriedness for the future. These folks were not only serious about making a dent in the homeless population — they aimed to solve it altogether.

Over the next few months, friends and colleagues joined me in helping to fill and decorate the soon-to-be-occupied tiny homes. Many opened up their pocketbooks, too. Middle school students and their families brought goodies and wrote letters and encouraging messages. A woman in her 80s dropped by regularly with hand-sewn decorative pillows to brighten each room. And soon enough, some of our most vulnerable neighbors moved from often dangerous and traumatic situations into housing — just like that.

In the meantime, while politicians and pundits debate definitions of housing and the solutions for homelessness, Dignity Moves isn’t wasting any time with new communities already open in Santa Barbara, Rohnert Park, and Alameda. The nonprofit is also asking its residents for feedback and is creating a culture of action and accountability.

So when CEO Elizabeth Funk asked if I’d be interested in leading a new Lived Experience Council composed of current residents from each site, my response was an unequivocal yes. The council is a way to hear directly from the residents about how they’re making the housing transition or if there are any improvements. More importantly, it provides a platform and a voice in a space often dominated by the more fortunate. To ask residents their view of proposed solutions, like whether they may be open to traditional housing placements or prefer the community living found at Dignity Moves, is powerful.

Though the council is still in its infancy, I’m already very encouraged by the initial conversations and can’t wait to hear more from the residents and share some of their stories.

“There’s a stigma with homelessness,” said one new council member at our first meeting late last month. “There are myriad reasons that can cause homelessness, but Dignity Moves is changing the narrative and giving hope to the hopeless … giving people dignity. It’s in the name.”

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