A portrait of Ira Hirschfeld at his home, Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, in Mill Valley, Calif. Hirschfeld is the president emeritus of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and co-founded the Season of Sharing Fund with the S.F. Chronicle 35 years ago.
It was 1986, and the term “homeless” had only recently drilled itself into the public consciousness. But the problem went beyond the alarming, burgeoning population on the Bay Area’s streets—poverty overall was spiking as the 1980s economic boom left those on the bottom end behind.
We have to do something about this, philanthropist Walter Haas, Jr. told the head of his San Francisco-based foundation, Ira Hirschfield. And we have to pick a partner that can help us keep our neighbors from losing housing, going hungry, or facing agonizing choices between paying rent or medical care.
That partner wound up being The San Francisco Chronicle, the biggest newspaper in Northern California. And the something that the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and the paper decided to do was create the Season of Sharing Fund.
It was always just a few thousand dollars or so—but crucial dollars. Money to pay rent while a parent waited for a new job to start. Cash to repair a car so someone could commute and not lose a job. Paying off the bill for a critical operation.
The fund started that year taking donations and funneling mini-grants to people in need through social service agencies throughout the nine Bay Area counties. It was always just a few thousand dollars or so—but crucial dollars. Money to pay rent while a parent waited for a new job to start. Cash to repair a car so someone could commute and not lose a job. Paying off the bill for a critical operation.
The effort raised $700,000 in its first year. All of that went to 1,478 families for rent and other needs, and to area food banks that used it to feed more than 50,000 people.
Thirty-five years later, Season of Sharing is the biggest newspaper charity in the United States, raising and disbursing more than $14 million over the past year alone. That money provided 5 million meals through food banks and gave aid to approximately 5,000 households.
The fund’s administrative costs are covered by The Chronicle and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund so that all of the donations that come in can go directly to help people in need. Since 1986, the fund has handed out more than $163 million.
Most people don’t have a lot of savings and it takes very little to tip over the dominoes, one crisis to upend their lives. That’s where we help.
“This is not a fancy highbrow program—it’s a simple model, and it works incredibly well,” said Hirschfield, who’s on the Season of Sharing board of directors and is president emeritus of the Haas, Jr. Fund. “Most people don’t have a lot of savings and it takes very little to tip over the dominoes, one crisis to upend their lives. That’s where we help.”
He said Haas, Jr., who died in 1995, and he reckoned one of the big benefits of having The Chronicle involved was that it “would do a good job educating the public through stories they could tell about people being helped in the community by the fund, and that’s been the case.”
Those stories, told every year by the Chronicle between Thanksgiving and the New Year, are often heart-wrenching.
In 2014, the paper wrote about Ronald and Darlene Amey, parents of five children, who were in danger of losing their Oakland home after cancer forced Ronald to stop working as a handyman. In 1997, there was frail 89-year-old Marie Grill of Richmond, who needed to pay off a giant phone bill run up by a malevolent visitor so she could keep contact with the outside world.
And last year, when Janet Magana de Cuevas of Vallejo, her husband and their five children all caught COVID-19 before vaccines were available, the family savings ran out while the parents were incapacitated by the virus for several weeks. They faced an insurmountable pile of medical, food and mortgage bills.
Season of Sharing helped all of these people bridge their crises with grants.
Recently, when Magana de Cuevas looked back on that harrowing time in 2020, she choked up. “Once you’re drowning, you need the help,” she told The Chronicle. “It’s nice to know there are programs like Season of Sharing out there that will help.”
Back when the fund started, we mostly helped folks working at minimum wage jobs or relying on public assistance,” Sylvia Coublet said. But increasingly, she’s helping workers at factories, restaurants, ride-hailing gigs and the like.
These annual stories aren’t just melodrama, said Sylvia Soublet, who works for the Alameda County Social Services Agency and has coordinated with Season of Sharing for 18 years. Two working parents, one crisis, and a fast-moving danger of losing housing—this a more common narrative than it used to be.
“The landscape has changed,” she said. “We serve a wider swath of Bay Area residents from all socioeconomic backgrounds and educational levels than ever.
“Back when the fund started, we mostly helped folks working at minimum wage jobs or relying on public assistance,” she said. But increasingly, she said, she’s helping workers at factories, restaurants, ride-hailing gigs and the like.
The national federal poverty level for a family of two people may be $17,420, but that’s practically irrelevant in the Bay Area. “A family of two has got to be making $100,000 or more to be able to live comfortably here,” Soublet said—anything below that, and saving cash to stave off trouble becomes a progressive struggle.
“Don’t let the name Season of Sharing fool you,” Soublet said. “This isn’t just a holiday program. They do most of the fundraising during the holidays, but we serve people all year round. And it is so very much needed.”
That need shows no sign of slowing, with the pandemic, voracious fire seasons and the widening gap between wages and housing costs hammering working people harder every year.
Donors seem to be recognizing this, said Chronicle Publisher Bill Nagel, who is also on the fund’s board of directors, and Zev Lowe, the fund’s executive director.
Nagel pointed out that since the pandemic started, donations have increased 40% and the number of donors has gone up 38%. The smallest donation the fund got last year was $2, and it went from there to seven figures.
“We do have some longtime donors who are carrying a lot of the weight, but we’re trying to cultivate a new generation of donors—and we’re seeing that happen,” he said.
Lowe, who was hired two years ago with more than a decade of international and local experience helping vulnerable communities, said the smallest donation the fund got last year “was $2, and it went from there to seven figures, which is wild. We got three $1 million donations.”
“Some people read our Season of Sharing stories and might donate because they think, ‘Oh, thank God that’s not me,’” he said. “Some might think, “That was me at one point.’ And others would think, ‘Oh gosh, that person reminds me of my uncle or my sister.’
“But I think lot of people just know that anybody can fall on hard times, especially right now. And those stories we run in the paper? Bottom line, they’re optimistic stories of hope, with happy endings—and we can all use more optimism and hope in our lives these days, can’t we?”
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