Street Level Health Project Helps New Immigrants Get on Their Feet

The health center enables some of Oakland’s most vulnerable populations access to health care and employment resources.


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Photo of Gabriela Galica by Lance Yamamoto

The Bay Area boasts plenty of nonprofits and organizations dedicated to helping vulnerable groups receive health care. But one of the biggest hurdles that keeps people from connecting with those kinds of invaluable resources is access — the physical, economic, or structural barriers that prevent people from receiving the help they need.

So when Kathy Ahoy, at the time a public health nurse for Alameda County, wanted to help Oakland’s underinsured, uninsured, and recently arrived immigrants, she took to the streets to meet people where they were. She co-founded Street Level Health Project in 2002 and with a team began reaching out to day laborers and other low-wage workers with health care services and other resources. The group eventually became a formal nonprofit and expanded its offerings to help job seekers. The organization serves around 800 people in the clinic annually and last year provided 600 job placements.

Health care remains a central part of the group’s mission. Twice a week, the organization provides free health care screenings to low- and no-income clients. The approach to health care is comprehensive, focusing not just on immediate health needs, but also on nutrition and mental health services as well as connections to other health care providers in the community.

The mental health care the health center provides is vital, said Gabriela Galicia, Street Level Health Project’s executive director. “We know our communities are migrating from other countries and the trauma that they have faced in their own countries, in the process of migrating, and even just here in the United States make it hard for sometimes people to move on with their lives and really build a life for themselves,” she said.

Appointments are designed to be as comprehensive as possible. Many workers can’t afford to take time off work to go to several follow-up appointments, so Street Level tries to include as much as it can in the appointments. Its services provide an easy entry into the often-confusing health care system in the clients’ new country, a process simplified by having staff members on hand who speak the new immigrant’s language. Over the years, many of the new immigrants the group works with have been from Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras. But recently there’s been a rise in the number of Mam immigrants, an indigenous Mayan people from Guatemala. The Mam immigrants don’t speak Spanish, so Street Level has responded to this new need by hiring Mam interpreters.

Part of Street Level’s holistic approach means helping people in all areas of their lives, so it also offers connections to services like immigration lawyers and free, healthy groceries. One of the goals is to lift low-wage workers out of poverty through education, and Street Level works closely with Oakland’s day labor community, many of whom are new immigrants who don’t know their rights when it comes to working in the United States. Every Tuesday, for two hours, Street Level hosts workshops for workers, teaching them that anyone who works in the United States — regardless of legal status — has the same workplace rights to breaks, minimum wage, and safe working conditions. Not all day laborers know this, leading to some predatory behavior from unscrupulous bosses. Sometimes a boss will tell workers he’ll pay them for a day’s work tomorrow, only to disappear, or a job site might not have necessary safety equipment. Other times, a boss may drive workers to another city for work where the minimum wage is higher but fail to pay the worker’s the higher wage. In their workshops, Street Level talks about the history of worker-led movements, encouraging workers to share their experiences. “We try and spotlight this community a lot, because we know that often they live in the shadows,” Galicia said. “Often people walk in feeling every day that there’s not an awareness of what these workers are facing on a day-to-day basis.”

Street Level also runs the Oakland Workers’ Collective, which makes it easier for workers to find jobs through a job-matching website. The way it works is that a potential employer provides information about what kind of job he or she needs to be done and is matched with a worker with the appropriate skills. Street Level ensures that the wages are fair.

The work is personal for Edgar Salazar, the organization’s day labor employment advocate. “I’ve been undocumented myself — my parents brought me here at the age of 3 or 4 years old — [but] I have DACA now, so I think I’ve seen both sides of the story,” he said. Salazar described working in unsafe and illegal conditions but believed that he had no other options.

“I felt like if I got fired from this job, I wasn’t going to be able to pay my rent or my school or anything. I was always scared of leaving a job, and I think that’s one of the things that’s really important to me, just for community to know their rights, that if they are getting paid an unfair wage, that they have the right to say it,” he said.

Five years ago, he said, he didn’t know any of this. But now, he said, “I feel like this is the way of me contributing to a change that’s really important.”

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