Heart of Gold: Outreach worker links homeless with resources
January 1, 2013
On a Monday spared the rains that drenched most of December, Jeffrey Dupra picked me up at The Union's office on his way into Nevada City in a small SUV full of winter coats.
As the outreach worker for Hospitality House, the county's largest homeless service provider, Dupra had spent the morning with a client's father deliberating his son's mental health emergency — a responsibility that kept Dupra from attending a meeting with police from Grass Valley, Nevada City and Nevada County to discuss homelessness.
Dupra prefers to start his days at Hospitality House's Welcome Center on South Church Street in Grass Valley, where people can shower, eat and arrange for services. Dupra sees this time as optimal to check in with them to see who needs a ride to work, an interview, a doctor appointment or some other errand.
"He's extra special with the way he deals with people," said Robert Bebout, a middle-aged Nevada City homeless man.
Dupra is becoming well known for his work. Elected officials, law enforcement and community members alike have praised the 32-year-old at meetings on homelessness.
"I can't imagine anybody better suited for this job," said Cindy Maple, Hospitality House's executive director. "I don't know what we would do without him."
Dupra's success is attributed to his ability to forge relationships, said Grass Valley Police officer Jim Amaral.
"He goes out every single day and finds out who they are personally," Amaral said.
"I think he's successful because he doesn't give up."
The trick is to approach people on their level, Dupra said.
"You have to be there with real people in their situations," Dupra said, "because they aren't going to come to you for help."
Heading into Nevada City, Dupra drove to the Commercial Street parking lot, where some homeless people hang out by the public bathroom. Dupra looked for a man who promised to be there the day prior. One of the winter coats in the back seat was for him.
"Three-fourths of the plans I make fall through," Dupra said when the man was nowhere to be found.
After Commercial Street, Dupra headed over to the Bonanza Market parking lot next to the Nevada Theatre on Broad Street, where a handful of men of various ages sat in the sun.
Dupra jumped out of the SUV and was greeted as a friend by the men. He asked how they were and if they needed anything. One said his feet had been cold the night before.
"What size do you need?" Dupra said, then checked the back of the SUV and found a pair of the appropriate size. He also grabbed a jacket for a guy named James Maxwell.
"He's out there to save lives, not destroy them," Maxwell later told The Union. "He's doing what money can't do."
Before he left, Dupra asked the men if they needed anything the next day, when he would come back through town.
"The reputation Jeffrey has gained with the homeless in the community is because they know he will go the distance for them," Maple said.
Dupra started at Hospitality House as a shelter monitor more than three years ago.
Without an overnight facility of its own to house homeless folks, Hospitality House has coordinated area churches to take in needy and sober people to sleep. Dupra was one of the folks who stayed on site with guests at the churches before moving to full-time outreach work two years ago.
But Dupra's bridges don't just span into the homeless community he cares for. He's also forged ties with other agencies that group comes into contact with — everyone from behavior health specialists to law enforcement officials.
"He's a stand-up guy who is constantly looking at ways to collaborate with agencies to enhance providing services to homeless people," Amaral said.
While cops and homeless service organizations aren't always working toward the same goal, Dupra is at the heart of expanded collaborations between Nevada County law enforcement agencies' renewed efforts to cope with the homeless population.
The Nevada City Police Department sent Dupra to a four-day training seminar on working with mentally ill homeless people, as that agency implements a no-camping ordinance aimed at curbing criminal vagrants from nesting into the town.
A homeless person can obtain a permit exempting him from the ordinance if he can demonstrate that the public space
where they are sleeping meets adequate health and safety standards.
Dupra will work with police to connect permittees and non-permittees alike to mental, health and other homeless services.
"His aim is to link people up with the resources that are available," Maple said. "The goal is for Jeffrey is to essentially get them stable enough that we can eventually get them into shelter or housing. If people aren't willing to go that distance, then the goal is to help them survive."
Hospitality House will not take in intoxicated individuals, but Dupra still helps folks that don't take advantage of the organization's services.
"A number of our homeless are unsheltered because of mental health and addiction," Maple said. "He connects with them and checks on them to make sure they are OK."
With Dupra providing homeless folks with food, water, shoes, jackets and other tools to survive, a common assumption is that Hospitality House is enabling homeless people.
"We don't see it that way," Maple said. "There have been enough people that have died out there, and we view it as improving their odds. Having that connection, they are a lot better off than not having any connection."
After we left the Bonanza Market parking lot in Nevada City, Dupra took me out to a homeless camp called Manzanita Diggins off Coyote Street.
At the camp, Dupra headed to an abandoned wooden homeless shelter on private property and hauled it through mud and down a hill to be picked up later by a truck.
Inside the heavy mobile shelter were food, clothes, a few personal possessions and a large spider. Dupra told me its occupant got a job in Auburn.
Heading into camps frequently, Dupra has been the first to discover a person who has died, Maple said.
"He is in the right loops so that whenever something happens, he already knows," said Nevada City Police officer Shane Franssen. "More so than we do because a lot of them stay away from us."
Dupra is tapped into a network of homeless people. When one of them hasn't heard from one of their own, often they tell Dupra.
"How long would that person have been out there like that without being found if Jeffrey wasn't connected?" Maple asked.
Finding a deceased person was hard on Dupra, Maple said.
"The challenge is not to take things personally in a job like this. Sometimes the person you spend the most time with, who you work the hardest on, overdoses and they are dead," Dupra said. "The hard part is realizing you did your best, and you aren't a failure."
After leaving the camp, Dupra takes me back to Hospitality House's Welcome Center and deals with a guest who was having some problems.
"The best thing that most people need in my world is they just need a friend who is a good listener," Dupra said. "Most of the time, people are intelligent, and they don't need me barking at them. Often you are a sounding board.
"They know the problem, they know the solution, they understand painfully how they are an obstacle to their own progress, and just by being patient and letting them know you care, they work it out."
As the sun heads toward the pine-treed skyline, Dupra took me on his evening stroll through downtown Grass Valley. We headed through the Safeway parking lot on Neal Street and down East Main and Mill streets before we headed back to Hospitality House.
"A lot of the way I evaluate my own success is how patient and how present I was with people that day," Dupra told me on the way back. "I try to be friends with everybody so that they know that if they ever get to the point where they want to approach the idea of getting some help, that they could start with me.
"I just let them know that I am still here and that I will probably be back again tomorrow," Dupra said.
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email email@example.com or call (530) 477-4236.