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The economy is affecting many San Diegans forcing some to take to the streets.

September 28, 2011 1:11 p.m.

KPBS Midday Edition looks at the changing face of homelessness in our county.

Related Story: The Changing Face of San Diego's Homeless


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The annual sleepless in San Diego event last weekend brought out a variety of people you'd never expect to see spending the night on the streets downtown. That event is of course for charity. But homeless advocates say there are already a lot of people you'd never expect to see adding to the real homeless population of San Diego. The increasing numbers and the changing face of homelessness threaten to over whelm our resources. I'd like to introduce my guests; Peter Calstrom is executive director of San Diego county regional task force on the homeless. And Peter hello.


CAVANAUGH: Herb Johnson is president of the --

JOHNSON: Thank you so much

CAVANAUGH: And Charles Cunningham lives at the rescue mission and now works there helping others. Thanks for coming in

CUNNINGHAM: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Herb, this is the 50th year that San Diego has held its sleepless in San Diego event. Why is this fundraiser so important to the community?

JOHNSON: More so than the fundraiser, it's the one big connectivity we have to the community. Not just to the students and volunteer population but to other service providers. We run an expo in the afternoon. We had just under 20 priors that came out and had booths, and it's an extension of all of the work we do. That's really the most important part of this thing

CAVANAUGH: And to get people in touch to the work you do all the time.

JOHNSON: In the homeless population in general, not the rescue mission, but a lot of other providers also.

CAVANAUGH: I don't need an exact number; give us just about how many participated. And how much money do you raise in this event?

JOHNSON: Well, we're going to be in the black this year. And that's a good thing. I'm hoping we're going to raise between 25 and $30,000. We got lots of wonderful donations. The percentage of people who attended this year, we had some mace close to 1300 people on the ground during the afternoon, which is is a good turn-out for us. In past years, we've let in a significant amount of the population for free. And then this year, we changed the format a little bit. We had some really high quality music acts. And so we expected to be paid for that. We changed it around a little bit different. But even that, the paid attendance was up 30% this year, which is pretty good

CAVANAUGH: As you and I both know, many people around work, some people have lost their homes, herb. Has that changed who you're seeing come to the rescue mission?

JOHNSON: Well, it does. And the waiting lists are longer and longer. Because 85% of our program is one year residence programs, long-term. We don't turn over as fast. So the waiting lists are longer O. Average it takes people, you know, one and a half to two months to wait to get into our programs. The women and children's emergency shelter at night, which we open up every night, we're the only shelter for women and kids that does in-takes at night. We've seen some fairly substantial double digit numbers in that population. Way too many babies and infants, and mothers.

CAVANAUGH: Peter, earlier in the year, you conducted your annual point in time count to identify the homeless, whether they're in shelters or living on the streets. What are we seeing in those problems? Is there an increase in homelessness in San Diego?

CALSTROM: There certainly is, Maureen. And first I'd like to say hi to herb, and congratulate him on a great event of the we were there as one of the providers to provide our support, and it's a great event that raises awareness of this crisis in our region. And herb and the dozens of other providers in our county really do a tremendous job to address what is really become a larger than life crisis westbound our region. When we did the point in time count in our county, the numbers we reported in January's count were another almost eight% increase over the prior year. And looking over the course of about a four-year window from 2008 through 2011, we've seen about a 19% increase in the data that we report through our count, and what we report back to HUD

CAVANAUGH: Now, as part of your survey, this point in time count, you ask people who find themselves with no place to live, living on the streets and in shelters, you ask them how they became homeless. What is the biggest reason that you encountered?

CALSTROM: In this year's count, we reported -- and this is self-reported information, from approximately 15% of the unsheltered homeless population, so that's what this demographic report represents. And we had about 37% of those respondents indicate that losing their job or unemployment was one of the primary causes of their being homeless. And another 10% indicated eviction or foreclosure. Those were at the very top. Weep also had about -- we also had 8 to 10% who reported issues like substance abuse, and mental health reasons for being contributing factors to their being home little. But the economy had a profound effect

CAVANAUGH: Losing your job, and then losing a place to live, and then on the street. I'm wondering, herb, is that a scenario you hear about often?

JOHNSON: Very consistently. The emergency shelter, the women and children nightly shelter, we'll see a lot of husbands that are pulling up in their cars leaving their families to come in and be taken care of. 'Cause they -- they have the ability to take whole families. And they'll go bunk in. And those numbers, a lot of these families that are typically homeless, they're not on street corners, they're bouncing between relatives' homes and friends but they're truly unsheltered in terms of having their own space.

CALSTROM: Or living in vehicles.

JOHNSON: Yeah, that's right.

CAVANAUGH: Living in the car.

JOHNSON: But they don't show up typically in the task force's numbers, WHICH is more of the street population. So we see this tragedy played out every single night. It's hard to tough.

CAVANAUGH: Peter, I want to go back to your count again because you found there are more veterans from recent conflicts in San Diego. What about that?

CALSTROM: A note on the count we do too. We do both on individuals that we identified during this window of time when we do the count. We also indicate vehicles and hand-built structures. So we try to be as comprehensive as possible. We're able to capture a lot of T. But it's really hard to identify every single person who's homeless.


CALSTROM: And those who are doubled up and so forth are not included in the count. As far as veterans, we're seeing approximately 21% of the entire homeless population in our county who self-identify as a veteran, that's higher than the national average that is reported through all of the counts that occurred around the country. So we're also challenged because we have more recently returning vets than anywhere else in the country. Double the second highest area, which is LA County. We have twice as many. It's -- so we're really extremely challenge indeed that area.

CAVANAUGH: Charles Cunningham, I want to bring you into the conversation. And thanks again for coming in. I appreciate it. Now, maybe you can give us some insight into what it takes to get off the streets and back into society. You live at the rescue mission and you work there. Can you tell us what you do?

CUNNINGHAM: Yes, I work in the in-take department. And what I do, I bring in all the new guys weekly, I work with them, I encourage them, uplift them. You know, coming from the streets, from homelessness, drug abuse, they're struggling with issues, hurts, hang ups and habits. And I give them a lot of hope, you know? Because I come from the same place.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of stories do you hear from the people that you work with?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, there's many stories, you know? A lot of them drug abuse, some people have mental issues, not able to manage their lives, broken homes, lost their jobs and can't support their families anymore. And their wives and children would go to the women's center, and the men will come into the men's center. A variety of different things why people come.

CAVANAUGH: I bet a lot of people that you speak with never expected to have to use the services of a rescue mission

CUNNINGHAM: Oh, yes. I'm definitely one of them myself. Il never thought they would even enter into a rescue mission never thought I needed to be rescued. But my pride, my shame wouldn't allow me to even think about going to the rescue mission. Then I realized that as I cried out for help, and the voice I heard was you need to go to the San Diego rescue mission. So the rescue mission rescued me.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right


CAVANAUGH: Is that kind of consistent, herb work what you find? People who are coming to this place now? This is not in their plans. They never, never expected to need that.

JOHNSON: Maureen, I don't think there's a handful of people in the 460 or so that we shelter down every night that ever planned to be homeless. I like to go, you were talking about the service numbers. It's about 20%, which is pretty consistent with Peter's number

CAVANAUGH: Of veterans you serve 1234

JOHNSON: That we see. But they're typically Vietnam veterans, hard core, many have been homeless 10 or 20 years. And the shame today we're seeing a lot of 28 and twine year-old kids from Persian Gulf conflicts that have done 2 or 3 tours, and voila, they're out of the service, and the next thing you know, they have no jobs, no assets, and they're on the streets.

CAVANAUGH: Now herb, your organization, and other organizations around town try to help people who find themselves out of luck and with no place to stay, turn their live it is around, become productive members of society, get a job, and so forth, but with such high unemployment, how do people go about doing that? Is that harder than ever?

JOHNSON: Well, the resorts are stretched thin. And I kind of marveled in the last 6 or 8 months of many nonprofits screaming and wailing about losing government money. Well, we don't get money any. So that's not something I lost this time. But there is indeed a smaller service set, mostly bounded by the amount of money available to manage organizations. So while the population grows, the service ability area sorry decreasing, not only in the size of the facilities and numbers of folks who do it, but also the people who go face-to-face about clients and Peter is that the situation across the board when it comes to service agencies in San Diego helping the homeless?

CALSTROM: Yes, as herb said, everybody is stretched thin. But I also want to stress that a lot of progress is being made. Despite the increased numbers that we're reporting, we're also seeing a lot of successes, day in and day out, like Charles, and so many others who really do lift themselves up out of homelessness. And nationally, there's a huge effort, and the Obama administration is heavily behind this through HUD funding and other efforts through what's called the United States interagency counsel on homelessness, that is making a real concerted effort to not just manage homelessness by any means but trying to end it. And they're setting specific targets on different segments or subpopulations if you will of homelessness. They're targeting to end veteran homelessness by 2020, and family and youth homelessness by 2015. So they have very targeted goals as well as funds to back it up. Of and the department of veteran affairs is heavily invested in ending veteran homelessness am not just managing it or bringing it down. They're very aggressive and idealistic, but we all believe and know that this can be turned around. We have to do this as a community. It's not just for service providers like herb and others or the government to fund it. It takes everybody in our community, our elected officials are critically important to fund important projects like the world trade center renovation, and so many other things in order to get people housed 'cause we know that it can be done and we have to remain committed to that.

CAVANAUGH: Finally, I want to ask you, herb, there are many homeless people at least we've been hearing about homeless people lately who have jobs but still have no place to live. What services are out there for them? What do you offer them?

JOHNSON: Well, we provide guidance and help them to put resumes together and to step forward in the employment chaos

CAVANAUGH: Well, they have jobs but still can't make ends meet.

JOHNSON: Well, the cost of living in San Diego, the level it's at, one of the numbers that the task force came up with last year, 19% of this population have jobs. And many of them have more than one job. But that still doesn't equate to being able to get first and last on a rental unit or being able to pay for regular housing on a long-term bases

CALSTROM: And it really speaks to our affordable housing crisis in our region. There's a lot of work behind it, but as we will know, the cost of living is exposure tent here. If you're making even $40,000 as a family unit, you're not able to afford the day to day needs in order to get by. And quite honestly, about seven in ten in our society are one paycheck away from not being able to meet their rent or mortgage. So a lot of people are on a razor's edge there, and more needs to be done. And the government has stepped in. But we're, working very hard as a group and a community in order to head this off so this crisis doesn't grow. We don't want to report higher numbers year in year out. We want to see significant change in this crisis that we're facing.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you all for coming in and speaking with us today. I have been speaking with the phone with Peter Calstrom, he is with the San Diego County regional task force on the homeless. Herb Johnson is president and CEO of San Diego rescue mission, and Charles Cunningham is at the rescue mission. He works there helping others. Thank you all very much for speaking with us


CALSTROM: Thank you Maureen.

JOHNSON: Thank you thank you.