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Steve Hebert Finds Where There's a Goodwill There's a Way
By Kathy Dalle-Molle
It looks like Steve Hebert's life is turning around.
Hebert, a homeless man who has sold the Street Sheet newspaper in front of the post office on 24th Street off and on for the past few years, was accepted into a Goodwill Industries employment training program last September. Now, five months into the yearlong program, Hebert is hopeful about his future.
"I was stagnant before this program," the 50-year-old Hebert says. "Now I have a direction, a goal. I have a place to go every day, things to do. I can't put into words how wonderful a feeling that is."
On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, Hebert stops off for breakfast in Noe Valley -- a bagel with cream cheese at Noe Bagel -- before reporting for work at 7:15 a.m. as a sorter of donated items at Goodwill's Mission Street headquarters. He works until 9 a.m., "sorting everything from spoons to refrigerators," items to be sold in one of Goodwill's 10 retail stores in San Francisco. Then he attends an office skills class (also at Goodwill) until 1 p.m. After a half-hour lunch break, he returns to the sorting work until 4 p.m. On Thursdays and Fridays, he is off work, but he attends four hours of classes, learning computer software like Microsoft Windows, Excel, and Word. On Saturdays, he spends the whole day -- 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. -- in Goodwill's sorting room.
Hebert earns $6.75 an hour for both the 20 hours he spends in the classroom each week and the 20 hours he works for Goodwill. He also has access to a vocational counselor and a career education specialist to help him develop job goals, deal with the challenges of training and work, learn about the labor market, and identify the training and services he needs to accomplish his goals. Later in the year, Hebert will be assisted by a placement counselor in learning how to seek a job, prepare a resume, and develop good interviewing skills.
Goodwill also provides Hebert with vouchers he can use to purchase clothing at one of its retail stores, as well as a monthly Muni Fast Pass for transportation. On his own, Hebert needs to save enough money -- about $200 -- to purchase a suit, some ties, and dress shirts from Ross -- so he will have appropriate clothes to wear when he starts going on job interviews later this year.
"I'm enjoying the heck out of being here," says an enthusiastic Hebert. "This place is like a family to me now. I needed a hand up, and Goodwill is giving it to me."
Hebert found out about the program from an acquaintance last summer, and soon after, he called Connie Gutowski, of Goodwill Client Services, to see if he was eligible. "When Steve came to meet me, I just saw something in him. I had this gut feeling about him," says Gutowski, who is a graduate of a Goodwill employment training program herself and also was homeless at one time. "He had this determination in his eyes. I could tell he wanted to change his life, and I wanted him to have a chance."
Gutowski recommended Hebert for one of Goodwill's smaller programs: the San Francisco Training Partnership (SFTP), which is a collaborative effort among Swords to Plowshares, the Northern California Service League, the Urban University, and Goodwill. The program is funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Last year, 78 of the 1,400 people who went through one of Goodwill's job training programs were part of the SFTP. There is no waiting list for any of the programs, and qualified applicants are assured placement within 30 days.
Many of the people in Goodwill's programs have been homeless or have a history of mental illness or substance abuse. Some also are ex-offenders, live with disabilities, or are lacking in English-language skills. Substance abusers must be clean for at least 90 days before qualifying for a Goodwill program. People with mental illness must be on medication and working with a counselor.
"It's hard to get employment if you're homeless," says Hebert, "but with the program I'm in, you get to develop a work record, you get an education, and you're earning an income while you're going through the training. If there's any downside to being here, I haven't seen it yet. Ignorance kept me in the position I was in. I didn't know about this program, and if I had, I would have done it long ago."
Although he's never suffered from substance-abuse problems or mental illness, Hebert, who at one time worked as a laborer and also as a residential hotel desk clerk, still has had a tough time digging out of the hole he fell into almost four years ago.
In early 1998, he was married, living in a small San Francisco apartment, and making ends meet working at a small hotel in the downtown area. Then on March 3, 1998, his wife died unexpectedly and Hebert says he "went off the deep end."
Within weeks of his wife's death, he had quit his job and lost his apartment. For a few months, he traveled around Nevada, but soon he landed back in San Francisco, where he has spent the past three years, living in an old Volkswagen van he bought for $400.
"For a while, I'd lost all hope," he says. "Once you step out of the picture, it's really hard to get back in. I didn't have any office skills, so what was I going to do for work? Now that I'm getting older, I have arthritis and some other ailments that make it hard for me to work as a laborer. I need a job where I can sit down."
Last year, Hebert looked into taking computer courses at City College, but worried about how he'd find work once he finished the coursework. "It's hard to get people to hire you when you're homeless," he says.
This summer, despite his arthritis, he pursued a job working as a laborer in a Sacramento warehouse, but his Volkswagen van broke down en route to Sacramento. He wound up back on 24th Street, trying to sell enough copies of the Street Sheet to earn the money to fix his vehicle.
These days, though, things are definitely on the upswing. Soon he hopes he'll have enough money saved so that he can stop living in his van and rent a room or a small studio. He's recently begun to look. "I just need one room, a place to hang my hat," he says. "Eventually, I want to get a PC or a laptop -- there's no place to plug in a computer in my van."
He's not sure what neighborhood he'll end up in, except that "it sure won't be Noe Valley," he laughs. "No matter how far apartment prices go down there, I wouldn't be able to afford it."
Hebert admits that he still panhandles once or twice a month, "if I need to buy something extra. It's a little bit just to mingle too, since I miss seeing all the people I used to talk to."
By the time he graduates from the Goodwill program later this year, Hebert hopes to have landed a full-time job and a stable living situation.
"I want to be proof that this program works," he says. "I really think I'm on the way to succeeding."
He's also begun passing the word about Goodwill's training programs to "a lot of people in bad situations" -- some of whom panhandle on 24th Street.
"It's out there for you," he tells them. "All you have to do is go get it. No one can lead you by the nose. You need to do it by yourself. Look, I did, and it's not like I'm anybody special."
For more information on Goodwill's job training programs, call 415-575-2101 or visit the web site at www.sfgoodwill.org.