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New nonprofit meets SF’s homeless where they are, one step at a time

Brad Reiss, 60, didn’t always think about the importance of socks until he started passing them out to homeless people in the Tenderloin. The South San Francisco native was working on a documentary at the time, about people struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. But as he passed out socks to those in homeless encampments, it became clear that there was more of a need for footwear than for another documentary.

“Who were the people who were going to see the documentary? Certainly not those in the streets,” Reiss said. “There was a basic need that wasn’t being filled for these people.”

These soft, small articles of clothing, Reiss explained, are an essential part of human health, and are often the most requested clothing item at homeless shelters. However, socks are infrequently donated, leaving shelters unable to provide enough of them.

But on Saturday morning at 10 a.m., Reiss and 15 other volunteers gathered in the Best Buy parking lot at Harrison and Alameda streets with 300 pairs of socks. The group of volunteers would spend the morning in the Mission passing out the socks and other essential items. The effort is part of a new nonprofit that Reiss started about 7 months ago: Healers Without Borders.

“What we’re trying to do right now is organize ourselves,” said treasurer John Penna, who once worked in real estate and served on the South San Francisco City Council. Healers Without Borders, which received its nonprofit status in February, is self-funded by Reiss, a few board members, and some donations. “We’re so fresh that we’re just trying to engage people,” Penna said.

Their philosophy is simple: Be a compassionate presence for those who are struggling, by providing basic necessities and – most important – friendship.

Reiss knows of what he speaks. Born and raised in South San Francisco, Reiss said he was in and out of trouble from the ages of 14 to 43. He was a known drug dealer, and tried to get sober on many occasions, but with no luck. That all changed in 2005, when a police officer, pursuing him on a drug sales warrant, shot Reiss. He was hit twice, one bullet lodging in each arm.

“I think they were undercover cops,” Reiss said.

During his week-long recovery at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, he could see Bernal Heights from his room. “I thought to myself, ‘Boy, I better take a long look because I’m not going to be able to see those mountains again for a long time,’” Reiss recalled.

For the next three years of his life, Reiss was shuttled in and out of court every 45 days.

“My attorney at the time called it ‘an epiphany moment’ for me,’” Reiss said of his shooting. And in many ways, that attorney was correct. Reiss went to Alcoholics Anonymous straight away and, this time, he was ready to get sober. He spent the next 17 years of his life helping others do the same.

Of his new organization, he said, “We’re not recreating the wheel here. We’re not trying to do voodoo or detox. We’re trying to soften the blow.”

How does one do that? By showing up.

And it was simple interactions that seemed to pay off throughout the morning.

At one encampment, a man from Mexico had been homeless since losing his job at the start of the pandemic. He was thankful to receive a hoodie, but also to have someone come up and talk to him.

Around the underpass at 13th and Shotwell streets, Reiss gave a woman a suitcase with clothing.

“Nobody has talked to me in months,” the woman said, moved to tears by the simple act of kindness. “Thank you.”

Several volunteers at the Healers Without Borders event knew Reiss through various recovery programs.

“You can’t force recovery,” said Frank Herrera, who met Reiss four years ago in a recovery program. He stressed the importance of inviting people in, in the same way Reiss invited him in.

A couple in a tent poked their heads out in the middle of our conversation. Herrera paused. “How are you all doing this morning?” he asked. Smiles crept over their faces.

Two and a half hours, 300 socks, 50 hygiene kits, 50 pairs of pants, 40 shirts and 20 jackets later, the group of volunteers debriefed about their first event.

“It was so humbling to meet people in their own space. In some ways, connecting with the people was more important than just giving the item,” said Ellen Koestler, a volunteer.

The long-term vision for Healers Without Borders is still unclear. But there is one thing that is certain: They’ll be back soon. And next time, they may not just be passing out socks. “I noticed multiple people had pets,” one volunteer pointed out. “What if we also gave out bags of dog treats?”

Source: Mission Local

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