This month we bid a fond farewell to Sharon Alford. Sharon joined BFHP in 2007, and in her more than 12 years with us, she has played an instrumental role in developing BFHP’s Community Meal and our Veteran’s Transitional Housing program, as well as in the design and implementation of many of the tools we use to serve our clients, including: HMIS (the digital Homeless Management Information System), the City of Berkeley Shelter Reservation hotline, and Berkeley’s Coordinate Entry System for homeless services (CES).
For Sharon, it has always been a priority to create safe and inviting spaces for our most vulnerable community members, to treat them with respect, and to foster that value in her staff. We are grateful for Sharon’s many years of service, her straight-talking, her passion for her job, and her commitment to working with high-risk and underserved populations. “What I love most about my work,” she says, “is that we are changing lives.”
We interviewed Sharon at the beginning of August.
Have you seen the issue of homelessness change since you started at BFHP?
Certainly it has increased in numbers, and the face of homelessness has changed. There are many middle class or long-term housed individuals who are now homeless due to the rising housing costs.
What are the biggest challenges in the fight against homelessness?
Affordability – there are few units near Berkeley that are affordable to our clients on a fixed income. Without rent control that is the biggest challenge, the lack of inventory. There is funding provided, but we also want to make sure that a client is able to sustain that unit if the financial subsidies they receive decrease. Some available subsidies decrease because the goal is to lead the client toward independent living.
The results of the latest Point-in-Time count show an almost 43% increase in homelessness in Alameda County over the last two years, but only a 13% increase in Berkeley. Why do you think that is?
We have very strong partnerships connected to the Coordinated Entry System. I believe those partnerships working hand-in-hand contributed, because each partner has a specialty, and so there is not one agency trying to do everything. There are agencies that are connected to each other and together they provide coordinated wraparound services to the client. The CES provides the funds to house clients and the case management to keep them housed while they’re working through their challenges and being connected to partner services. These services often include mental health, such as Berkeley Mental Health and medical, such as LifeLong, because we know there is a direct correlation to physical fitness as well as mental health in order to stay housed.
Also, I think there may be a direct correlation with Coordinated Entry Services and the changing focus on Housing First. Housing First is when you place the individual in housing and then you work on the challenges that they face that had kept them in homelessness, so using that approach will tend to decrease the number of newly homeless individuals.
What do you want people to know about the homeless?
That they want to be seen and valued as human beings. At BFHP we believe everyone has a right to have a home, food, and medical care.
What is the most rewarding thing about working with the homeless population?
The possibility of it all, that’s what drives me. When you work with a homeless individual you are supporting them with wraparound services and navigating them toward permanent housing. It’s the possibility of the end result, that’s what drives me and keeps me going. The fact that after all these years that I’ve been working here we still have clients who call us after being housed for 12 or 13 years. Because we built that trust relationship, they are clear that if they call us they’re going to get an answer and we’re going to work with them to find a solution to whatever their immediate challenge is. We build lifelong relationships with clients who want that. They know that we’re here and we’re available.
What are you most proud of when you look back over your work here?
I’m proud to have been part of the design and implementation of many of the tools and programs we use to serve our clients, especially the City of Berkeley Coordinated Entry System introduced in 2016. I’m happy to have had a seat at the table with the BFHP leadership team as we grew and expanded the agency.
Also, training our staff in customer service was one of my greatest rewards here. To see the difference in how staff greeted and treated our clients as they entered our doors, made me proud.