In Oakland Chinatown, volunteer foot patrol groups in colored vests walk around with eyes on the street. The Blue Angels wear blue vests, and members of the Toishan Association wear orange. These groups, which increased in number after a wave of violence against Asian Americans in the summer of 2021 forced communities like Chinatown to stand guard, are often intended to ward off crime and clean the streets. But in this effort, some such groups have begun to engage with issues like homelessness, which affect the whole city. Sakhone Lasaphangthong—director of housing services for nonprofit Family Bridges—believes the community-oriented mentality could go a long way toward reaching big-picture solutions when it comes to ending the crisis of homelessness.
Sakhone runs the Family Bridges Community Ambassador Program, whose volunteers wear green vests. They can be found in the early hours of the morning, power washing the streets and picking up garbage. Later in the day, they watch over daycare programs, and de-escalate people in moments of crisis. Sakhone began his work with the ambassador program after paroling from prison, where he spent 20 years. He found a job with the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, which ran the program at the time, and began cleaning the streets. “I enjoyed it because it provided an opportunity to give back to the community,” he recalls. However, he didn’t initially know that this work would be so centered around doing outreach to unhoused people in the area. He started bringing food and clothing to people who were sleeping outside. Later, Family Bridges took over the program, and Sakhone became the lead.
Family Bridges also runs the Oak Street community cabins. Sakhone and his team use the site as somewhat of a central office, where they provide case management to anyone in the community who needs it. They use a hands-on approach that focuses on de-escalation, outreach, and jobs training, which Sakhone says sets their program apart.
We spoke with Sakhone to talk about how these programs have become a staple of the homeless response in Chinatown. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Street Spirit: Tell me about the Ambassador Program. What does your day-to-day work look like?
Sakhone Lasaphangthong: The Ambassador Program is one of our pathways to helping folks get off the street, [by] helping provide jobs for them. They can help us do the outreach to other homeless folks [who are looking for] a chance to get off the street, get housed, and rebuild their lives. Our main goal is to keep the community safe, clean, and provide opportunities for those who need jobs.
We start the day at 5 a.m. where I go out and I power-wash the street. The ambassadors sweep the street, because overnight after businesses close down, there’s a lot that happens in Chinatown. There’s folks who come through and overturn garbage cans, there’s Public Works who comes through to empty trash but spill a lot on the street. There’s a lot of illegal dumping. We come and clean and prepare the street for the business day for the merchants. We [call 311] for the illegal dumping. We sweep up tons of trash. We fill up at least two 50-gallon bags a day.
SS: Do the ambassadors engage in any community safety work?
LS: After picking up trash, we help with the daycare center because there was a report that somebody came and exposed themselves to the children. We go there and make sure the parents have a safe environment to drop off their kids. We look after the schools and the daycare for the rest of our day, until 10 a.m.
Where other support is needed, we split up. If somebody reports that someone is having a [mental health] episode, we go there. Sometimes houseless folks, they can’t sleep, and they break down. We de-escalate folks. When it’s cold they need clothing and food. We always provide food and water. We check in to see if they are a good fit for the cabins. If not, we determine [whether we need to call in] a 5150, to see if they need to be admitted to John George (the Psychiatric Hospital). We do what it takes to meet the needs of the folks that need the help. And a lot of times the episodes are resolved through water and food and compassion. Just “Hey are you okay? What’s going on?”
Our approach is never to discriminate, judge, or criticize. It’s always to try to learn, understand, and listen. When people start expressing their feelings and how they feel, a lot of the time they talk themselves down. They feel better to get things off their chest. It’s not for us to criticize or take sides. We’re just there to de-escalate and help ensure that everyone is ok.
SS: Do you engage the police?
LS: A lot of the time I like to refer to the Fire Department. They’re like first responders. If it gets out of control, we like to call the Fire Department because those folks are equipped to handle situations like that. But by the grace of god we don’t want to do that. We encounter even people pulling knives out on each other and are able to de-escalate that. But if it gets really serious and there’s a potential for violence or someone getting harmed, our only options are firefighters and police.
SS: Where did you learn your de-escalation skills?
LS: Life experience and group facilitations that we do in prison. Our group, a lot of us, did a lot of time in prison. Myself, I spent 20 years in prison. My peers who work with me did more time than I did. A lot of the time we had to learn to communicate and work with others, especially because when violence happens [in prison], people die, or get hurt pretty bad. In order to avoid that we had to be able to work with other folks and communicate effectively.
Us being formerly incarcerated is also an ice breaker with houseless folks because they understand incarceration. They’ll say, “You guys are my brothers! I’ve been locked up!” Out of that we get a lot of respect from the homeless community. They know that we understand how it is to be the outcast, or how it is to give up and not care, or [feel like] there’s no hope.
SS: How has the Ambassador Program changed as the crisis of homelessness has increased? What gaps does this program seek to fill?
LS: Not only do we help clean the street, we [also provide] opportunities for houseless folks to be employed or get counseling. We help talk folks into change—to want more for themselves. We make them see that they are worth another chance, to give themselves another chance. You could do a study on our community cabins. In the last two months we have housed over 30 people. That’s why this job training program is important to us, because it provides a meaningful way to sustain housing. That’s the only way it’s going to work. Putting folks in hotels until the money runs out is not going to work. Getting folks to understand that they are able to get employed and pay bills—that will work. Houseless folks get paid a living wage to work on the ambassador program and develop job skills, but a lot of them have skills and abilities that are way better than ours but they never had the opportunity, nobody invested in them. We invest in anyone who is willing to give themselves a second chance.
SS: Do y’all partner with any other community groups, or city-run programs, to meet these needs?
LS: We are the resource. In our community we have Lifelong Medical and Asian Health Services. When folks have medical questions we first ask them if they’re covered, if they have insurance. If they don’t, we help them sign up. They can use our address and they can check in with us at the cabins. For their medical care, we can make the call right there with them. We can’t refer them, they have to be the one to choose their own medical coverage. But we make the call and connect them. We are pretty much doing case management, but the only difference is that we don’t just do it for our participants at the community cabins. We provide that resource to any folks who need it. We’re equipped to help folks who aren’t just in our program. The community cabins are the home base, the office. Folks here know about it. They come get food, clothing if they need it. Folks that have questions, they always come through here. We welcome anyone, if they need food, water, just come to the gate. Communication is Number One.
SS: What challenges have you faced with transitioning people out of the cabins and into longer-term housing? It seems as though this has been a difficult task for the groups that run the other cabin sites.
LS: The reason why we’re so successful is because of the people doing the work. You gotta have the right people who are motivated to want to help people. I could give [anyone] a training pamphlet for how we do things, but if you don’t have the right people doing it, it’s not going to work out. We have the right people doing the work.
A lot of time the reason we are successful is that we lead people, we hold their hand. During intake we find out what documents folks have. If they are missing something like an ID, that’d be one of the first things we’ll help them with. We fill out a fee waiver and take them to the DMV to get their ID. We take them through the whole process of obtaining any documents needed so the county can find them a housing match. We go above and beyond the county system. We go out and look for housing ourselves for the individual. Some of the folks here have SSI. When we find SROs that’s $700 for a room but has a shared kitchen, we explain that and see if they are interested, and take them to see it. If they want it, we help them fill out an app and help them through whole process. We even help them get furniture. I wish the city would invest in us more, because our program works.
SS: What needs to change in order for more programs like yours to succeed?
LS: [Right now], it’s a cycle. Friends giving friends money. The governor gives the city money. The city gives money to the same programs every time. And nothing has changed. They consider hotel rooms housing. But realistically how is that housing? When the funding runs out, people go back to the street. I want to share about the work that we do so that maybe the right folks look into it and say, “hey, why don’t we invest in Family Bridges, the community cabins, the ambassador program? They’re really making a difference, doing the work.”
We document these things. We could show that we move more people into housing than the city does. SROs, studios, one bedrooms. The end goal is sustaining housing, helping folks stay in these homes. That’s the key to end homelessness. If someone qualifies from SSI, we’re going to help them get it. If someone wants a job, we are going to help them get it. Money management, helping put money aside to pay their bills. All these things are needed to help them go from homelessness to housing.
I appreciate the opportunity the city gave us to run the cabins, but I think they need to invest in us more and give us a bigger opportunity. I think that cycle needs to be broken.
In Dialogue is a column in which Street Spirit speaks with community leaders.
Alastair Boone is the Editor in Chief of Street Spirit.