Is there such a thing as coincidence?
At this point I'm not so sure. A few days ago I found myself drawn to an article by Thomas DeLong in the Harvard Business Review claiming that no matter how successful you get, there's always someone higher up the ladder who can make you feel small:
"Comparing is a trap that permeates our lives, especially if we're high-need-for-achievement professionals. No matter how successful we are and how many goals we achieve, this trap causes us to recalibrate our accomplishments and reset the bar for how we define success."
I have to admit this resonated and got me thinking about how to deal with this.
Next thing I know, Friday comes around and I find myself railing against deadlines and conference calls to clear enough space in my schedule for a day of volunteering: my elected Celebration of Service in honor of 100 years of IBM. I get in my car and compete with the rest of the early commute traffic through ever-decreasing approach lanes up to the metering lights, silently pleading for my release onto the Bay Bridge, into San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood where Project Homeless Connect (PHC) awaits me. By the time I arrive and meet the rest of the IBM crew, I confess there's just one thing on my mind: coffee. Bless the PHC organizers, for somewhere amidst the health tents, housing and shelter information, food banks and book giveaways are canteens of filter coffee and within minutes I'm somewhat human and ready for action.
In this case 'action' is the service of helping poor and homeless folk find the DMV, legal and substance abuse counseling on offer at the far end of the site. As Project Homeless Connect is a quarterly city-sponsored event bringing together over twenty services, it sprawls across a couple of blocks and so navigation between services can become an issue. From our centrally-located table, we do our best to help people find the service that can best help them.
I quickly realize that’s not always straightforward.
For instance, what if you're a single mother with a couple of kids and what little you have burns down in a house fire (including your ID)? Or if you've been on-and-off methadone and in and out of rehab so many times that you can educate the drugs councilors? What if you've had to quit your job to care for an arthritic mother and suddenly your taxes have gone up effectively halving your monthly check?
Life can be tough, but finding available help can be even tougher. That's where PHC comes in. Whilst many of the services provide the basics we need in life, such as food and medicine, there are more esoteric offerings too: a photo project aimed at sharing portraits with loved ones, and in a similar vein a voicemail service for those without access to telecommunications.
It would be optimistic to assume all problems can be sorted out in a day. And also a little naive to take all stories at face value: surely some stories did have layers of hyperbole and half-truths. But seeing the look of relief on an individual’s face, returning clutching a priceless ID - their ticket out of the shadows - more than validated the whole exercise. Indeed, the federal government’s Interagency Council on Homelessness has declared Project Homeless Connect a national best practice model, which has led to PHC being replicated in over 260 cities across the United States.
By lunchtime, I confess that the conference calls and my ever-expanding Inbox awaiting for me back at the office had drifted far from my mind. By the end of the day, gone were any comparisons with my more successful colleagues. All I could think of were a bunch of people pretty much the same as me (often more eloquent, lucid and vibrant) but who for whatever reason had been denied the same life-chances I’ve had.
The intrepid IBM team (left to right): Kristin Hansen, Daryl Pereira, Tracy Birdsall, Jeff Anderson, Arun Ramanna
Awaiting sign-up into Project Homeless Connect
Pet care: one of the many services on offer
An estimated 6,000-12,000 people are homeless on any given night in San Francisco.
Since 2004, more than 32,462 homeless and poor San Franciscans have received services through Project Homeless Connect.