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Celebrating 40 years of support: Samaritan House addresses homelessness, poverty, hunger
June 24, 2014, 05:00 AM By Samantha Weigel Daily Journal

Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Robyn Fischer, Samaritan House’s client services manager, meets with Marta Alvarado, a 77-year-old cancer survivor who participates in the San Mateo County nonprofit’s food and financial assistance programs.

For 40 years, Samaritan House has evolved to attend to those in San Mateo County who may be sick, hungry, homeless or cold.

Samaritan House started in 1974 with just a handful of people who partnered with the city of San Mateo to serve as a referral program for those in the county who struggled to afford basic necessities, said CEO Bart Charlow, who started this month.

“It grew and took off in the 1980s and became as big as it is today because people had a lot of needs in the community that we were able to fill,” Charlow said. “We’re taking care of all the basic needs that struggling people have. We provide food, shelter, clothing, health care, financial assistance and even financial empowerment programs, and counseling. And those are what help people survive not just today, but get their feet under them in order to break out of the cycle of poverty, which is our real goal.”

Samaritan House now directly serves about 12,000 people annually through its meal programs, food pantry, housing assistance, worker resource center, health care clinics, Safe Harbor shelter and holiday program.

The community service organization provides crisis intervention and long-term care, but aims to promote stability and security among its clients.

In 1985, John Kelly, who’s known as the “father of Samaritan House,” was asked to serve as the executive director and for 15 years helped foster an organization that offered direct services as a way to subsidize county programs.

“We switched gears and gradually started to add programs. The process went from pretty much an informational agency to a hands-on direct service agency,” Kelly said. “If there was a community need that no one else was meeting, we’d be able to take it on. That was sort of the philosophy and the approach.”

In the past decade alone, about 22,000 volunteers have put in 370,000 hours and the agency has delivered nearly 1.5 million meals, according to Charlow.

Outside of its internally managed programs, Samaritan House serves as the lead agency for San Mateo County and makes referrals to at least seven other service organizations.

Through strong public and private partnerships, Samaritan House has an approximate $9 million annual budget, which it uses to support thousands who struggle to meet basic life necessities, Charlow said. As the county’s core agency, Samaritan House also allocates funds to the other service programs and often provides direct financial assistance to individuals in crisis, Charlow said.

Evolving needs

Laura Bent, director of programs and services, said Samaritan House’s evolution coincides with changes within the community.

“What I love about this organization is we take the time to do our needs assessments in the community and identify gaps in needs for the clients we are serving, what they need to succeed. And we strategically plan what we have the capacity to lead and where we can collaborate and partner to provide holistic services for our clients,” Bent said.

Keeping with growing needs has meant following increasing housing costs. As San Mateo County boasts some of the highest rents in the nation, Samaritan House will, on a case-by-case basis, provide one-time financial assistance to help prevent homelessness, said Client Services Manager Robyn Fischer.

Marta Alvarado, a 77-year-old U.S. citizen who was born in El Salvador, said Samaritan House helped secure her home by making a one-time direct payment to her landlord when her rent suddenly increased by $346 in April.

Alvarado said she first heard of the organization more than 15 years ago while working at College of San Mateo where she would pair students with assistance programs.

Alvarado said her life drastically changed after being diagnosed with cancer and becoming unable to work so five years ago she turned to Samaritan House for help.

Alvarado said she participates in the food assistance program where she’s provided with monthly groceries and fresh produce. She was also fortunate to be chosen for the senior sharing holiday program that partners families with seniors.

“These people are very friendly, you feel like you are protected and you are loved and they are always willing to help,” Alvarado said. “They become friends.”

Alvarado said she’s been very fortunate to receive government assistance like Section 8 vouchers and MediCal, however, Samaritan House helps subsidize her other needs.

Medical assistance

Still, many in the county do not have access to direct health care so, in 1992, Samaritan House began offering medical services. It now runs medical and dental clinics in San Mateo and Redwood City that tend to 9,000 patient visits each year, Charlow said.

Generous volunteer physicians, nurses, medical assistants and interpreters, run the health and dental clinics, said Director of Program Operations Sharon Petersen.

“We are kind of a safety net in terms of health care for the county,” Petersen said.

Maria Valenzuela said she suffers from diabetes and has been a patient at the Samaritan House clinics since 2004.

“Because in this country, it’s very expensive for doctors and medicine. If we don’t have a place like Samaritan House, I don’t know what we’d do. Especially for me, because I have ... diabetes. It’s hard to take care and the medicine is very expensive and even the lab tests and all that kind of stuff,” Valenzuela said. “If it wasn’t for Samaritan House, it’d be very hard for me to take care of my health.”

Meeting basic needs

Samaritan House’s ability to help, Kelly said, stems from the community’s participation and recognizing that supporting prosperity means ensuring basic human needs are met. Although much has changed in the last 40 years, Kelly said Samaritan House has grown alongside the community and continues to provide for the betterment of those in need.

“When you have all kinds of families on the edge where food, clothing and shelter are pretty basic and challenging to them … we need programs that address these problems,” Kelly said. “When you’re in survival mode and you’re not sure if you’re going to have food when you get up in the morning, or a roof over your head, education is great, but it’s of no value unless you’re living a halfway decent life and your basics are taken care of.”

For more information about Samaritan House visit

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106



Tags: samaritan, house, programs, needs, assistance, county,

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