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What Are Major Challenges Facing Local Homeless This Winter?

Audio

Aired 11/25/09

What kind of hardships will the local homeless population be facing this holiday season? We speak to representatives from the Alpha Project, the San Diego Rescue Mission and the United Way about the services available to local homeless people. Plus, we look ahead to talk about what can be done to end chronic homelessness in San Diego County.

The Homeless Call to Action event will be held December 1 from 5 to 7 PM at 655 West Broadway in downtown San Diego.

DOUG MYRLAND (Host): I’m Doug Myrland, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and you’re listening to These Days on KPBS. Well, what kinds of hardships will the local homeless population be facing this holiday season? Today we'll speak to representatives from the Alpha Project, the San Diego Rescue Mission and the United Way about the services available to local homeless people. Plus, we'll look ahead to talk about what can be done to reduce chronic homelessness in San Diego County. Our guests include Bob McElroy, founder of the Alpha Project, an organization that strives to get the homeless off the streets and into jobs. Bob is on the phone at the shelter at this moment. Bob, thanks for being with us.

BOB MCELROY (Founder, Alpha Project): Hey, thanks for having me, man.

MYRLAND: Also joining us is Brian Maienschein who is the commissioner of the Plan to End Chronic Homelessness with the United Way of San Diego County. Brian, glad you could be with us.

BRIAN MAIENSCHEIN (Commissioner, Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, United Way of San Diego County): Thanks, it’s nice to be here.

MYRLAND: And I should, for purposes of disclosure, say that I sit on a couple of committees of the United Way, not specifically related to homeless but representing KPBS. And we also welcome Herb Johnson, president and CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission. Herb, thanks for being here.

HERB JOHNSON (President/CEO, San Diego Rescue Mission): Thank you, Doug.

MYRLAND: We are only able to have Bob McElroy with us for a short time, so we’re going to start with him and, Bob, I’d like you to describe the scene at the winter shelters where you are right now.

MCELROY: Well, some might say it’s chaotic but I think it’s a blessing. I mean, we’ve got 225 men and women, mostly seniors with disabilities checking into the shelter today, one day before Thanksgiving so we’re celebrating Thanksgiving early today. And just a blessed time, they’re receiving their – they’re doing – going through medical triage right now and assessment. The next day or so they’ll be all getting their swine flu shots and TB testing. We get people tucked into their warm, comfy beds and then start the process of recovery, you know, transitioning people into supportive housing. Obviously, PTECH, the Plan To End Chronic Homelessness, Brian’s program, the United Way’s program is huge here. It’ll be a great resource for us here, and then, you know, transferring people up into long term treatment programs and jobs and all that kind of good stuff.

MYRLAND: And, Bob, I had heard that the shelter might not open until next week. How did you manage to get it open early?

MCELROY: Well, a heaping helping of divine intervention, number one, and then in great cooperation with the city crews, the redevelopment agency, the mayor’s office obviously taking care of the political stuff. And then our crews, obviously, VVSD, outstanding, the Vietnam vets that actually put the ribs up and the skin of the tent, and then bringing in all the ancillary support for the bathrooms, the manager trailers, the shower facilities, it’s just been a combined effort that put it up in, you know, a Herculean task put up in seven days and, you know, just a lot of blessings and props go around to everybody.

MYRLAND: Now how long is the shelter going to remain open?

MCELROY: Well, I wish it was open 360, 365, but it looks like the – about the first week in April unless the weather’s really bad then I’m sure they’ll let us squeeze off a few more days or weeks.

MYRLAND: I want to ask you just one more set of questions and that is tell me a little bit about the experience that a person has when they are assigned to come to the shelter or they’re recommended to come there. What happens? And then what are the living conditions like? What sort of a space do you have when you’re staying at the shelter?

MCELROY: Well, you know, it’s – it might look a little Machiavellian to some people but, you know, it’s – the people are very appreciative of – They’re military style bunk beds, number one. But they’re all – they all have brand new, fresh blankets. The Handlery Hotel downtown is just going through a rehabilitation of their facility and so they donated all their bedsheets and pillows and comforters and all that kind of good stuff, so every bed comes equipped with fresh linens that each individual gets to keep. They each have a gift bag from Shawne Merriman of the Chargers that has additional blankets and hygiene packs. They all get to keep that stuff. But really the purpose here is to triage, assess and place these people. We’ll have over 1000 people transition through the winter shelter in the next 120 days. And, as I said, some of those people will be going to supportive housing, some of those people will be going into transitional housing, some people will be going into treatment programs. So it’s not a place for – it’s not a bed and breakfast. We’re not looking for folks to stay here, you know, for the whole three month run. We want to get these people, they each have the case management file and will be working with – assigned to a case manager who will assess that – each individual’s needs and then we’ll get them up out of here into, hopefully, independent living at some point in time.

MYRLAND: Well, Bob McElroy, thanks for taking a few minutes to be with us. I know you’ve got a lot of duties to attend to there. And congratulations on getting open in time for Thanksgiving.

MCELROY: Well, thank you. All you guys have a great day and come down and see us.

MYRLAND: Okay. Thank you.

MCELROY: All right.

MYRLAND: Bob McElroy, founder of the Alpha Project. Brian Maienschein, I want to turn to you just for sort of a big picture question. Tell me where this shelter service fits into the big picture of what you hope to eventually accomplish with dealing with the problem of homelessness. And as the Commissioner of this United Way project, you know, you’re really looking at many years out of planning but this particular shelter at this time, how does it fit into those plans?

MAIENSCHEIN: Yeah, it is a long term project and there’s many pieces to the puzzle but this is an important piece. As Bob said, the individuals that come in are assessed, they have a case manager, and each individual receives the attention that that individual needs. So the goal there, as Bob has layed out, is that people get in, they get some shelter for awhile, they get some – they get assessed, they get triaged, and then they are moved to an appropriate place. Our goal, ultimately, is that there’s permanent supportive housing for the individuals that come through.

MYRLAND: Now, Herb, help everybody understand what role the Rescue Mission plays here. You know, you provide services as well as the shelter. What’s the difference, basically?

JOHNSON: We’re in a slightly different space, Doug. I think most of – 85% of the folks that are in our program are in year-long rehabilitation programs. That would be for our men’s and our women’s program. We do operate the only walk-in shelter for women and children and we take in 60-plus women and kids 365 days a year, and that’s transitional shelter work but it’s designed specifically for women and children. It fits a space that Bob doesn’t cover down in the other shelter…

MYRLAND: Umm-hmm.

JOHNSON: …so we’re not competing for clients down there. But most of what we do up at our Elm Street facility is long term rehab, meaning they’re in the program – they make a commitment to be in the program for a year. And, again, we case manage folks all the way through our program and either put them out into jobs or into jobs and housing that’s more permanent in nature than our program.

MYRLAND: So somebody might go to the shelter and then move to the Rescue Mission after making a commitment to…

JOHNSON: That’s exactly right. And when Bob talked about case management, our people are involved in a communal system here in San Diego and we look at a lot of the clients over at the shelter as appropriate candidates for our long term programs.

MYRLAND: Now this all sounds like problems are being dealt with but, Brian, really there are more problems than there are services to deal with them, right?

MAIENSCHEIN: No question. And especially we’re seeing that now with the tough national economic times. It’s really increased the needs that are out there. At the same time, it’s more difficult for folks like Herb and Bob and all the other providers. You know, they’re finding sometimes their funding’s being cut and it’s just more difficult to get out there and raise money at a time when they want to help even more people.

MYRLAND: I want to talk a little bit about the Plan To End Chronic Homelessness and, you know, it started a few years ago when the economy was in a different place and all of our minds were in a different place. So in a way you have maybe less fundraising potential and more – more need over the course…

MAIENSCHEIN: Yeah.

MYRLAND: …of the start. And you, since January, have been the commissioner. So how are you beginning to chip away at the issues?

MAIENSCHEIN: Well, it’s a difficult problem. You know, one thing that we’ve done this year that, you know, I’m pleased with is we were able to get out almost $800,000 to a number of organizations including Bob’s and Herb’s, and they’re doing some really innovative programs. We created about 80 units, new units, of permanent supportive housing. That was significant. So there is some good news, there’s some things that are happening that are good news. But you’re right, I mean, I think that this is really an unprecedented economic time and so it does make it more difficult at a time where we just see more and more need. You know, some of these people that when you said – like you were saying, in 2006, that may have either had jobs or maybe just even been on the bubble now since find themselves either homeless or, you know, thinking about I don’t know if I’m going to be making my rent payment or my house payment next month.

MYRLAND: Now we’ve seen, year after year, arguments about where to put the shelter. This year it was another long series of discussions by the city council, ended up having the shelter in the same place it was last year. We know that this discussion is going to take place again. From the point of view of your commission, what should be done about a shelter for homeless people during the winter? Should it be temporary the way it is now? Or should there be a more permanent solution built and what does your plan envision?

MAIENSCHEIN: Yeah, I think that – I think there’s a place, no question there’s a place for a temporary shelter and I think that it provides an important – some important services but, ultimately, I do think there needs to be a permanent shelter. And while I think there needs to be a permanent shelter downtown, I also think there needs to be permanent shelters in other places in the county because this is – this, ultimately, is a countywide problem, it’s not just a downtown problem. Now, we see it downtown and certainly the numbers downtown are greater and that’s why I do think that there does need to be a permanent shelter downtown.

MYRLAND: Well, we hear people talk about this from both sides of the coin, about how you need to put services where people are and, on the other hand, if you put services in a certain place it will draw people to them. And I want to bring Herb into the conversation here because you’re in the business of providing services to people, you are located downtown, can you envision your agency having a significant presence someplace other than the neighborhood you’re in?

JOHNSON: We’d love to expand around San Diego County with a different kind of housing, either transitional or longterm housing. Our main facility on Elm Street is actually outside of downtown. We’re in Bankers Hill. And, you know, you want to go back to talking about the shelter’s problems every year not finding a home, 7 years ago when the San Diego Rescue Mission moved out of East Village, it was probably one of the nastiest moves of anybody ever in San Diego history in terms of the community not wanting us there. The good news is they kind of love us now and they’ve gotten over the fear of us being there. But if you leave the services downtown, that’s where the folks are going to flock; it’s a natural phenomenon. But there are homeless all over the county but they flock to that East Village area because most of the services are there. I think there’s a reason and some proof and some models in other cities that show that dispersing some of those services and providing different kinds of housing levels around the city does take that population out of being a core population, which is the problem they have in Los Angeles. You know, you’ve got 10 blocks of 100,000 people walking around and all the services are there and they aren’t elsewhere.

MYRLAND: So, Brian, what’s the next step? You know, we’ve got the shelter in place for this winter but as far as after that, what – how are the issues going to get framed?

MAIENSCHEIN: Well, the San Diego City Council is looking at siting a permanent shelter and that’s something that we’re going to strongly support. And I think from there, once that shelter is sited—and I believe it will be successful—I think it will be a model for other jurisdictions in the county to emulate. So we want to get the first one taken care of and it’s going to take some work and it’s not going to be easy, as Herb has identified some previous problems, it’s not going to be easy. Having said that, I think it will happen. I think it will be something that will provide a really big benefit and a visible benefit and then from there we’d like to see that emulated in other places within the county.

MYRLAND: I want to ask you a I don’t know if it’s a philosophical question or what but you’ve been in a city council position, all right, and now you have the benefit of some perspective. How are you going to get 8 politicians to make this issue a priority and to go against the wishes of some of their constituents by placing a shelter where some people aren’t going to want it or dispersing services around a great deal of neighborhoods? How do you get some political traction on this issue?

MAIENSCHEIN: It’s difficult but I would say I think there’s some people who – some elected officials who understand the problem. They see the problem. Others are just seeing the negative impacts within their own districts of not doing anything. And, thirdly, what I’d say is, you know, there’s a real economic benefit to doing something. If you take a – if you just take away, for a second, any sort of moral or ethical beliefs and you just talk about purely on economics. A chronically homeless person is very expensive for us taxpayers, all the services that they use during the course of a year, whether it’s visits to ER, interactions with law enforcement, whatever it is. To provide them housing, it’s much cheaper. So even for the people who may not understand the other side of the coin, I think the economic argument at a time when revenues are declining for city governments, I think it’s a very powerful argument. And if they want to keep funding libraries and parks and other things in their districts, which they do, I think they’re going to see the need one way or the other to tackle this problem.

MYRLAND: Herb, do you – you have people living in your facility for quite awhile. Can you envision having a facility that would be more or less a permanent residence for people? You know…

JOHNSON: Absolutely. I think supportive housing is the only answer to solving the street population not only here but in other cities.

MYRLAND: So how do you avoid having a really unpleasant public housing kind of situation? You know, we’ve seen this happen in city after city where subsidized housing is built and it turns into an awful place to live. And, you know, how do you avoid some of those bad problems that have happened in other cities?

JOHNSON: I’m not sure how to avoid them but I think if you take a look at the model of what we did in Bankers Hill, after we were given the rights to move in and rehab that building, an LLC was formed, they took us to court, they tied us up for two years, and there was a neighborhood advisory committee that was left, and the first two years that group met every month and it was awful. And now they’re so bored with us up there that we meet quarterly. At Christmastime, the people who sued us 7 years ago bring substantial gifts for our clients and our children, and we have health clinics and we collaborate with the neighborhood. And, you know, that’s only as good as the last thing I did. They still keep their eyes out at us but there’s no trash. The neighborhood looks great, and we have a relationship with the neighborhood. I think that model and I think the power that’s not been felt yet—and Brian and I are talking about a few things to change that—is a collaboration of all the service providers. I think we’re all figuring out if we stand one at a time then we’re never going to get anything done; we’ve got to stand shoulder to shoulder.

MYRLAND: Yeah, but collaboration’s tough because you all have your own constituents, you all have your own boards, you all have your own fundraising goals. And I guess everybody looks to Brian Maienschein and the United Way to sort of be the catalyst and to help achieve that collaboration. So what are some of the steps that you take? I suppose you have carrots – you have carrots of money. I don’t know what kind of sticks you have.

MAIENSCHEIN: Yeah, you know, it’s – I think Herb really hit on something, is that I think there is a growing recognition that we’re all in this together, all the providers are in this together. They may have their, you know, some individual issues but overall, they’re in this together. I mean, one thing that…

MYRLAND: But I want to be realistic here. You know, I worked in the nonprofit business…

MAIENSCHEIN: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: …for a long time and it’s easy for funders to say, oh, I want you guys to collaborate. But it’s hard for organizations to really give up power and control and really, really, really work together because, again, you’ve all got tough goals to meet and you’re all struggling and you’re in competition with each other.

MAIENSCHEIN: Well, what we did was when we did our RFP process, our grant process this year, we made about $800,000 available. And one of the things we said was you get more points on your application if you partner with somebody else. So some of these organizations that really hadn’t talked to each other, maybe really didn’t even like each other, now realized, hey, if I want some of this funding, I’m going to have to pick up the phone and I’m going to have to call them. I’m going to have to find a way that we can work together on something. And we’re seeing it now. We’re seeing some of the fruits of that happen. It’s going to be a longer term process but just in this first year, it’s been pretty significant.

MYRLAND: Now one of the things that you’ve talked about is ID cards.

MAIENSCHEIN: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: Can you help me understand why that’s an important step and what benefit that’ll have for all the agencies and for the public at large?

MAIENSCHEIN: One of the main problems that homeless providers have is that their clients don’t have an ID card. There’s no way for them to identify themselves. Well, you know, without an ID card you can’t get a job, you can’t get services, you can’t get government benefits, you can’t really get anything. I mean, we all know even, you know, you can’t write a check without an ID card. So it’s a significant problem and so what I wanted to do was find a way to facilitate individuals getting an ID card. It’s – None of us who have automobiles and – like to go to the DMV, for example. So but imagine if you don’t have transportation and you’re homeless, how difficult that would be to navigate. So I was able to get the DMV and the Social Security Administration to agree to come out on site and issue ID cards. So we were going to kick it off actually at Stand Down, the Vietnam Veterans big event. Unfortunately, because of the state budgetary crisis about two days out from the event, they cut – they refused to do any outreach. We’re ready to go and once the state works through a couple of the issues that it needs to work through, we’re going to go out quarterly on site and be able to issue ID cards. Ultimately, it’s an easier way and United Way will pick up the tab for the reduced fee for getting the ID cards and then once those individuals have an ID card it’ll be much easier for them to get services or to get housing or to ultimately even get a job, without a significant input of money.

MYRLAND: Now, Herb, you talked about people needing to be rehabilitated and I’m assuming it’s mostly for drug and alcohol. But those aren’t the only reasons that people end up being homeless. And you talked for a little bit about your services to women and children. Can you give me an idea of some of the other circumstances that folks are facing and how they, and why they, end up at your place?

JOHNSON: Well, I think aside from, you know, addiction issues, both alcohol and drugs, probably mental health problems is the largest core of the folks that we see. And, unfortunately, when people are on the street, they can’t get medical help so many of those folks maybe formerly were on medication or were at least under a doctor’s care, aren’t getting any of that. And without the medication and without the doctor’s care and without the counseling, they’re babbling idiots. They’re useless to themselves and they look like they’re dangerous to anybody that gets near them. So when they come into our program, we get them into a clinical program. We do counseling in-house. If we need to send them outside for psychological evaluation and get meds written for them, that’s a huge thing. With nearly 400 people in our building, I can tell you that our program is successful because of the regimen that we enforce, getting up every day, being part of a societal function. You have to eat, you have to work, you have to do – go to class. And for many of those folks, without the mental health and the medical help, they can’t lead normal lives. And that’s something in a contained environment that we’re able to do. The same is true for our women and children’s shelter. Women and children are likely to stay there longer in our transitional housing than the men. When men finish the program in a year, many of them are ready to kind of plug in and go elsewhere. But for mothers, it’s a little bit harder to find housing, so we keep them in our system until we can get them into supportive housing.

MYRLAND: It seems like we’ve lived through some real, real changes in society since the 1960s and ‘70s. There was a time that we really were, as a society, trying to give people with mental health difficulties more freedom. You know, we stopped building big mental health facilities and confining people in facilities, you know, but now we’re – it sounds like we’re kind of coming back a little bit and saying you’re not going to stay on your meds and you’re not going to get the counseling you need if you don’t have some kind of a controlled environment. So how do you strike that balance between being respectful of people’s ability to be free and not locking them up behind a gate but yet creating that structure that people need?

JOHNSON: Well, I think that, you know, just take a look at the population as we see it on the street today. They need to – many of them need to be managed and many need to be structured. During Reaganomics, you know, the mental hospitals were a mess so they were a natural target so they just eliminated them. There’s some middle ground in there where you do need supportive housing for these folks, not just putting them in great big buildings with retention walls but providing the counseling services, providing the medical support for them to lead at least productive and safe lives.

MYRLAND: And, Brian, how – again, with the big picture with your commission really trying to create some long term solutions to this problem, sounds to me like you’re going to be raising money to build some infrastructure.

MAIENSCHEIN: Absolutely. You know, it’s going to take government funding to help, it’s going to take private fundraising, it’s going to take developers that want to come in and create some units. And so it’s going to – it’s a massive project. Like I said earlier, there’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle and it’s going to take the help of everybody to make it happen. But I will tell you, I think without question the average person now understands the need a lot better and even visually we’re seeing it. In places where you might’ve seen one homeless person, now you’re seeing five or ten. Places where you didn’t see any homeless person before now you’re seeing one or two. So I think there’s a greater perception of the need to attack this problem.

MYRLAND: Are there some good examples around the country that you’re particularly fond of that you’ve been looking at as ones to emulate?

MAIENSCHEIN: Yeah, there are. I would recognize Denver. They’re farther along in the process. They have a very committed – their mayor is very committed to this issue and they have a business community that’s very committed and they’ve run a successful program that we’re taking – we’re definitely taking some hints from.

MYRLAND: Now you talked about government support and we know that eventually, you know, the economy’s going to change and there may be more opportunities there. But I would assume that right now you’re really looking more at private foundations, private philanthropists, those kind of things.

MAIENSCHEIN: That’s true. That’s true.

MYRLAND: How do you make the case that this is a problem that can be solved and that a foundation or a philanthropist can really make a difference here?

MAIENSCHEIN: Well, we’re showing that what happens when somebody gets permanent supportive housing. We have not just – we have statistics, we have individual instances that we can show, and I think because of the declining revenues from government, the declining opportunities we’re seeing from government, I think it’s – I think there is a sense in the business community and from philanthropists that this is a time where they really need to step up. They have been fortunate and they have been blessed and now’s a time for them to give back. And we show what happens when a community adopts a Housing First model, which is what we advocate, what that ends up doing for the community long term. And so we sit down with them, we show them how it works, we show them cities – what cities like Denver have done and the impact that that’s had.

MYRLAND: Now, just to put a little more detail on this Housing First model, you believe that creating permanent residences for folks is the first step and then all the other problems get addressed?

MAIENSCHEIN: Well, it’s simultaneous with providing services. You have to have both but you can’t have one without the other. I think sometimes in the past there was this idea, well, we’ll provide services and hopefully someday it will work out that they’ll be able to get housing. And now there’s this notion that there needs to be housing and services. And like I say, I think that if you – there’s no question, at least—and I think Herb would tell you this too—there’s kind of a moral issue here that the housing addresses but also just from a fiscal standpoint. Believe it or not, it’s actually cheaper to do it that way than to just let somebody out on the street, as Herb was saying before, who is obviously mentally ill or who’s obviously causing problems for a neighborhood, it’s easier and better for all concerned to provide the housing and support.

MYRLAND: So, ideally, how many units are you talking about?

MAIENSCHEIN: Well, the chronically homeless population, you’re talking about 15- to 1600 units.

MYRLAND: And you’re thinking about spreading those out among how many different neighborhoods?

MAIENSCHEIN: Yeah, and that’d be spread out throughout the county. And it’s part – you know, partially it’s going to be on availability, supply and demand, as soon as – You know, some of it’s out of, you know, it’s just kind of market laws that are going to govern that but we’re looking at throughout the county because there’s a need throughout the county.

MYRLAND: So your commission has, I believe, about $10 million from various sources so you’re – you need to raise about another $100 million to build that many units at least, right?

MAIENSCHEIN: And you’re going to – you’re going to help us out, right? You’re going to write a check today for it?

MYRLAND: I mean, that’s a big number.

MAIENSCHEIN: Yeah.

MYRLAND: And that puts you in competition with a lot of other community kinds of needs, too.

MAIENSCHEIN: Yeah, I don’t look at it so much as competition because I feel like it is something that we’re all in together. I, you know, I support Herb and his Mission but I also see the larger good that it does for everybody else, too. I mean, for every unit that Herb gets built or that Bob McElroy gets built or whoever, it’s just one less that we need as a community. So I think I don’t see it so much as competition, I see it as all that we need to be in there supporting each other because anytime somebody does well, we all benefit.

MYRLAND: So we’ve been talking about the big picture and the long term, let’s go, in the next minute or so that we have left, what’s next? The shelter’s built. What’s the next big challenge here over the next few months?

MAIENSCHEIN: Well, we get the – I think the shelter getting built is really significant and that’s going to be a huge opportunity for the rest of the region to see what can be done. In the meantime, it’s to continue pushing to get permanent supportive housing units built and to address the immediate needs. I mean, we’re looking at a holiday season right now. It’s to address some people, just making sure they get on, as Bob talked about earlier and Herb talked about, get off the streets, get assessed, get case managed and improve their lives.

MYRLAND: Well, Brian Maienschein, commissioner of Plan to End Chronic Homelessness with United Way of San Diego County, thank you for joining us.

MAIENSCHEIN: Thank you, Doug.

MYRLAND: And Herb Johnson, president and CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission. Herb, thanks for all the hard work you do and also for being here with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you very much.

MYRLAND: And earlier we heard from Bob McElroy, the founder of the Alpha Project. I’m Doug Myrland These Days in San Diego.

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