She’s been called a blueberry, a lifesaver and an angel. But when most people in downtown Sacramento see the “lady in the blue jacket” coming, they know she’s there to help the homeless. Teresa Olivas, 39, has worked with different nonprofit organizations in Sacramento for 13 years. Two years ago, she started working with the Navigator Team of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership—known for its distinctive blue uniforms. The program has three advocates that conduct outreach on the streets of downtown Sacramento, identifying the needs of homeless individuals and working closely with other nonprofits to get each person the specific services they need and, ultimately, to find them housing. Olivas recently talked to SN&R about social work, her own struggles with addiction and the organization’s choice in color.
Why the blue jackets?
We wear the blue jackets because it’s easier for our clients to know where we are, and we’re easier to identify when someone is looking for us.
How many people do you work with?
We housed 81 people last year out of 320 clients that we worked with. We’re still in contact with the ones that were not housed, unless they moved out of [the] district or they no longer want[ed] our help. I think we’re one of the most successful programs in downtown because we’re actually out on the street helping people every day.
What made you want to get into social work?
Well, I started as a guest at the [Volunteers of America] drug and alcohol program. I grew up in south Sacramento, and I was pretty free to do what I wanted. I struggled for the first 25 years of my life with addiction, but I finally decided I needed help. I was pushed by my sponsor to get into the program, and I was determined to go back out and use. But after a couple months of living clean and sober, I decided it was what I wanted. After a year, I went back to school, and the VOA asked me to come back to be a counselor. I worked there for four years, and then I moved to be a mental-health outreach worker, because that is where my heart and compassion really is.
It comes from seeing people that no one else was getting to, that need services but weren’t getting them. A lot of the mentally ill are homeless, and if they are sick, they are not going to come to you. … We have to help them be able to find the help they need, and with all the budget cutbacks, sometimes that is not easy.
How have budget cutbacks at nonprofits affected the services available?
It’s been a lot harder to help them. Because resources have been cut everywhere, we have less to work with and people have fewer options. Collaborating with other organizations in downtown is the only way to make it work. We reach out to them and help them get to the services they need. That’s where our name comes from—we help people navigate the system.
Have your past experiences with addiction helped you in this job?
It’s taught me to be more patient and to be persistent. This job is about building relationships and gaining trust. Just because you approach someone, it doesn’t mean they are going to be willing to get help right then. But we work seven days a week, and we don’t give up on anyone. God has also been a huge inspiration to me every day and helps guide and direct me.
How did you end up working for the Navigator Team?
I was recruited by [former Navigator] Jay Vance. He thought I would be good for the program, so when a job opened up, he called me.
What can someone do to help?
We currently don’t accept referrals, but if you want to help us, help the homeless in downtown, you can donate to the Downtown Sacramento Foundation, which supports the homeless outreach that we do. You can also donate to our key partners, like Francis House [Center], Guest House [Homeless Clinic] and The Effort that enable us to make a difference in people’s lives.
Most gratifying part about your job?
I like being able to help people that need my help. It gives me great comfort every day when I go home, to know that I helped someone who really needed it. When I needed help, there were people that were there for me in my time of need, and I want to give that back.
When services are not available for the person that I’m trying to help; having to leave them outside for another day until I can try to help them again the next day is hard.