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Challenges To Raising Awareness About Homelessness


What can be done to raise awareness about how people become homeless, and the challenges they face living on the streets? We discuss the latest statistics on the local homeless population, and the goals of this weekend's "Sleepless in San Diego" event.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. In the news this morning, we heard that a San Diego City Council committee wants more public comment before deciding on a site for a permanent homeless shelter. While that process continues, hundreds of people remain homeless on the streets of San Diego, idle by day and sleeping rough at night. This weekend, many San Diegans who are lucky enough to have a home, will be sleeping outdoors, too, in an effort to bring attention to the homeless problem. The 4th annual "Sleepless in San Diego" event will be held at Liberty Station on Saturday night. Here to tell us more about what the Sleepless event means and how it’s grown are my guests. Herb Johnson is president and CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission. Herb, welcome to These Days.

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

CAVANAUGH: And Peter Callstrom is executive director of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness. And good morning, Peter.

PETER CALLSTROM (Executive Director, Regional Task Force on Homelessness): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Peter, as I said, the San Diego City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee, they met yesterday, discussed the idea of building a permanent homeless shelter in San Diego. Were you disappointed that this idea did not move forward to the full council?

CALLSTROM: A great question. I think mixed feelings because I, too, understand where folks are coming from who want to see more public comment because I think a lot of folks, providers included, felt that this was a great effort to – on paper, the concept with PATH, which is a unique organization that has a one-stop shop type approach, would be able to serve a lot of folks, but there’s a lot more who are unserved and we need to really look at this in a broader context. So it would be a great step forward but is there more that can be done in order to alleviate homelessness.

CAVANAUGH: Now remind us what location they were discussing yesterday.

CALLSTROM: The World Trade Center on Sixth.

CAVANAUGH: And what were some of the objections that you heard during the testimony that was taken yesterday?

CALLSTROM: From business owners, the concern about safety, the concern about queuing outside of the building if that’s going to take place. The – A number of folks felt that they only heard of it through the newspaper article in the U-T just a few days prior so they were surprised at it and they really just wanted to know more about it and to provide more community input before they moved forward because there’s a lot that’s impacted when this happens. And from the provider standpoint, the homeless service providers, again it’s a question of this would address 25 – 225 beds but there’s many more, again, hundreds more who we need to be able to find a solution for.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Herb, I think you attended that meeting.

JOHNSON: Yes, I was there.

CAVANAUGH: The location of your organization, San Diego Rescue Mission, came up during the committee’s discussion and the fact that perhaps at first it didn’t blend in too well. A lot – there was some objection to the location but how have other residents of your neighborhood accepted the Rescue Mission now?

JOHNSON: Well, I think to say we had some difficulties is probably a large understatement. We had a massive problem. We were issued a conditional use permit. We vacated the East Village area, and sold three facilities to move up to Bankers Hill. And less than a month after we were given our conditional use permit, a group of citizens got together and formed an LLC and had the conditional use permit overturned. That started a two-year litigation battle that cost us about $2 million and left behind as a residue something called the Neighborhood Advisory Committee, which meets every month in our building. The first two years of the Neighborhood Advisory Committee were like the McCoys and the Hatfield. They were just awful, awful meetings. Everybody hated us and really still wanted us to leave or vacate. And what’s happened now is the meetings are quarterly, the neighbors kind of love us. In fact, many of the same people who sued us 6 years ago now give us donations and bring in a substantial amount of gifts for our children at Christmastime. I think it’s a model of what you can do if you really want to be a good neighbor despite what business you’re in.

CAVANAUGH: And so knowing the history of your own facility in downtown San Diego, I want to get your reaction to the discussion that took place yesterday about the location for a permanent homeless shelter downtown.

JOHNSON: I don’t think I was surprised that it didn’t move forward. I actually left the meeting midway through some of the nay conversation. Peter and I were talking and it was – It was a very small group compared to the folks that were presenting in favor. But the council has always erred on the side of wanting community feedback so I wasn’t surprised by that. That site actually may be more challenging than the site we moved in because we have some courtyards and plazas that are within the boundaries that help us to not have that queuing outside. But, quite frankly, we pay for security and we have cameras and we monitor what goes on up and down the blocks around our building. That’s kind of a tougher location and it’s a lot – it’s much higher facilities. There’s 20- and 30-story buildings around there. It’s a very, very different neighborhood. You go from two really distinct neighborhoods when you leave East Village and come 8 blocks over to that 6th Avenue location. It’s a totally different environment.


CAVANAUGH: So what is – What are, Peter, what are the next steps in the process for the Land Use Committee? When are they going to revisit this?

CALLSTROM: I believe it was 90 days that they’re going to allow for more public input and so the process for that, I’m not sure but it goes back to those that were awarded the RFP to move forward with this, which was – not awarded the final RFP but those that they’ve recognized that they would be the RFP if this is approved and that’s the…

CAVANAUGH: What is an RFP?

CALLSTROM: The request for proposal…


CALLSTROM: …in order to make this happen. And, again, this is a collaboration with PATH, Common Ground, a organization out of New York, I believe, doing a lot of great work across the country in finding solutions to homelessness. They did tremendous work in downtown New York, in fact, and they showed how they were able to almost completely eradicate chronic homelessness in a concentrated area of downtown New York. So they’ve got a model that works. As well as Family Health Centers here locally, a great provider to the second largest federally qualified health center in the country. So it’s a great team and – But, again, the public comment, you know, required that the – really, it came back to the council members who really debated it strongly and went back and forth and there was some opinion to move quicker and get it to council and others who really wanted to take more time, 60, 90 days. So in the end, it was 90 days to provide enough time to provide more input with the community. But I would say, too, I was heartened that the council members there, Tony Young, Sherri Lightner, Kevin Faulconer and Todd Gloria, I think across the board are in favor of doing something. They’re really passionate about making this work. And that was really encouraging because it was a discussion about what are we going to do to make a difference? How are we going to solve this problem? And it’s not an easy one to solve. And they’re there working on solutions versus pushing back.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Peter Callstrom. He’s executive director of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness. And Herb Johnson. He’s president and CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission. And we have been talking about what happened yesterday during the San Diego City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee about moving on with the idea of a permanent homeless shelter in downtown San Diego. We are going to move on now to talk about the event that started – that precipitated us getting together here today, the “Sleepless in San Diego” event that’s being put on by, Herb, the San Diego Rescue Mission. You say that this is an event to raise awareness about homelessness in San Diego. What is it that people don’t understand about homelessness?

JOHNSON: Well, if you go through San Diego County, I’d bet that 80% of the population doesn’t see an awful lot of homelessness. It’s mostly concentrated in a few areas, mainly the beaches and downtown. So while they see the stories on television or listen to your radio station, they don’t have a personal contact with it. So when we invented this particular function three, three and a half years ago, it was intended to raise awareness and then to engage our constituents, many of whom are churches, are youth organizations, to come out to celebrate homelessness and make a stand for it by not spending a night in your home, not necessarily emulating homelessness but just make a statement about homelessness, that the city really wants to do something about it. And it’s really grown quite a bit in the four years. We’re expecting well over 1,000 people at this year’s event. The first year was maybe 175 or 200 people. So it’s really, really changed quite a bit.

CAVANAUGH: And, Peter, when you talk about what people might not understand about homelessness, the Regional Task Force on Homelessness collects and analyzes data about the homeless population. So tell us a little bit about that. How many homeless people do we have in San Diego County?

CALLSTROM: With our latest count, which was conducted at one point in time in late January between 4:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. when we had 400-plus volunteers fan out around the county, the numbers, the preliminary numbers, because we have more work to do to pull it all together because there’s a lot of different demographic information, but the rough number at this point is at least 8500 people, both sheltered and unsheltered, those living in – or getting services in great programs like Mr. Johnson’s as well as those literally living on the streets, so 8500 but that number could certainly be higher. In looking back in recent years, the prior year it was about 7900 and the year before about 7500, so we’re clearly seeing a trend upward. And it’s obvious that the difficult economy is clearly a contributing factor to this because our unemployment is so high and that clearly feeds into the problem with more folks having nowhere to go. And once they lose their apartment or their home and if they don’t have a safety net and if they have other contributing factors, they may end up on the street.

CAVANAUGH: And beyond the numbers, who makes up this homeless population? Is there any change in the kind of demographics that you’ve been seeing in…


CAVANAUGH: …young people or older people?

CALLSTROM: We are seeing a troubling trend up in terms of more youth as well as more seniors so it’s not what would be the stereotypical person one might think of as a homeless individual. But in our last count, our sheltered count, in fact, we counted – accounted for at least 1,000 youth, those under 17 years old. Imagine that, a thousand in our county alone. And many more seniors, too, because with the baby-boomer group aging out and more folks aging out, we have more seniors, and those folks are at great risk for various health reasons that could lead to people dying on the streets.

CAVANAUGH: Herb, are you seeing the same thing at the Rescue Mission?

JOHNSON: Yeah, our emergency shelter, which is the only shelter for women and children that does intakes after six o’clock, we saw from 2008 to 2009, Peter, a 24% higher demand for our services. And if you look at the national numbers, you’ll see that some 30%, some higher regions than that, of the growth in homeless population is children under the age of 13…


JOHNSON: …which is really scary.


JOHNSON: I think the one question I would have, and I have high regard for what the Regional Task Force is. One of our staff is a member of their board and I regard what they do but I think there’s still a lot of people that don’t get into the count. It’s not…

CALLSTROM: That’s right.

JOHNSON: …because they’re missed but there’s literally hundreds of families living in automobiles…


JOHNSON: …or the working poor who may have lost their job because of the economic downturn and couldn’t afford apartments but our expression is they’re bouncing. They…


JOHNSON: …go from friends to relatives to hotels for a few days and then some of their families show up in our shelter and the husbands will go off and fend for themselves.


JOHNSON: And I think that’s a number that’s hidden.

CALLSTROM: That’s right.

JOHNSON: The process by which the Regional Task Force counts doesn’t really allow for them to get after that population because they’re not the traditional homeless population.


JOHNSON: They’re not alcoholics, they’re not on drugs, and they’re not sleeping on street corners but they do not have homes; they’re bouncing between one place or another that doesn’t get counted. So they’re not in our, you know, they’re short-termers for us but…


JOHNSON: …that’s the one that’s the most troubling of the increase.

CALLSTROM: And I would agree with that point. It’s – We can only count so many because we do it at one point in time in order to grab the best we can, a slice of what is happening, but there’s many more folks who are not accounted for. And when we look at it in a statistical way with what the definition by the Housing & Urban Development Department out of the federal government, HUD, their definition across the country is that it’s probably a half of one percent of all people in the country are homeless, which would add up to, in our county, double the number that we’ve even counted. So that number could easily be far higher than the 8500 that we do through the count that we do.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Peter, you made the point while we were talking about the city council and the discussion about the permanent homeless shelter that you believe that there’s more that we need to do than just establish a downtown permanent homeless shelter. What would you suggest that’s needed for our homeless population here?

CALLSTROM: We need more of those, and that’s the difficult choice because it’s the not in my backyard issue. Because wherever it goes, it’s going to impact somebody, and it’s a really difficult decision for local leaders to say this is the spot and this is what we’re going to do and where we’re going to put our funds. But we have to recognize that this is a regional issue, not a downtown San Diego issue alone. There’s more folks down there, clearly, but it is a countywide issue. We have 18 cities, we have homeless individuals in every city. And we have to have the political will from our county supervisors to our city council members and mayor to really grasp onto this issue, stick with it, hang with it, and figure out other places in which we can make inroads to provide housing because housing, in the end, is what it really is all about. Healthcare’s clearly important, jobs are important, but you need a roof over your head.

CAVANAUGH: Herb, you said that your “Sleepless in San Diego” event has grown. Who participates?

JOHNSON: Well, a little bit of everybody. There are a lot of youth that stay overnight, so I want to make it clear, if people want to come out and join us for the afternoon during our expo, which is interesting because it ties into this new shelter very nicely, they can come out for the afternoon. We’re putting on an expo in the afternoon. We’ll have nearly 40 providers of homeless – that take care of homeless populations or indigent populations in San Diego. We’re trying to draw them all into this, so this is an opportunity to come out and see other people other than the Rescue Mission and what we do. And we’re also – have planned in October to do a summit where we’re hoping to bring every organization in San Diego under one roof for a day to discuss how we can do business more efficiently. There’s several models around the country. The one that’s most closely – that’s happening right now is in San Antonio where they’ve taken every single one of their providers and put them in a mall type environment and out of – I’m not saying this is the model we should undertake…


JOHNSON: …but some variation of that, allows all of these providers to be in a place where they can service the population that so desperately need it – needs it.

CAVANAUGH: Now when someone goes out to Liberty Station on Saturday afternoon to see this expo, what kind of businesses are they going to see?

JOHNSON: Well, they’re going to see folks from Father Joe’s Villages, they’re going to see people from Alpha Program (sic), they’re going to see people from Second Chance and similar organizations that deal with these populations. They’re all going to have their little brochures. They’re expected not to do any fundraising, overt fundraising, but to give away items that will tell – And we’ve also got a passport program for all the youth that are participating to go around to each one of those booths and get information about each of these programs to take them back to their youth programs or their churches or whoever they’re representing in hopes that more people will volunteer their services and go to work in those organizations. That evening, we’re having a homeless court. We’ll talk about the legal issues of the homeless people where people can participate. We’re going to do some mock arrests and then have some…


JOHNSON: …talk about how that works. And then in the evening at about 5:45, six o’clock, we’ll put on about a four and a half hour musical stage show. The mayor will be there. There’ll be some great testimonies, some great music, and capped off by a movie, “The Soloist,” the PG version at about ten o’clock.

CAVANAUGH: And what’s it going to be like for people who do plan to stay overnight? What – Are they going to be bringing sleeping bags? Their own food? What’s going to happen?

JOHNSON: We have food. We’ll provide food.


JOHNSON: There’s food to buy and there’s some food that’s been donated. They need to bring a sleeping bag and a blanket and a cot. And they need to go to our website and get registered: It’s a safe and secure environment. We have toilets, and it’s going to be perimeter, a closed perimeter. We have security. It’s a wonderful event. It does not emulate homelessness although all of the teenagers that come, we have something called “My Night in a Box” and we’re partnering with Costco and they’re going to bring a truckload of cardboard in as they did last year, and the kids build these wonderful structures. I don’t know how they make them as big as they do. So if you ask adults why they’re there, they’ll say they’re there to make a statement about homelessness for the people who have no voice in this town. But if you ask the young people what they’re doing, they’ll tell you that they’re trying out homelessness for a night.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right. Now obviously this is not a grim event but it’s not really a sort of a fun night out either, is it?

JOHNSON: It’s a very happy event, actually.

CAVANAUGH: Is it? Okay.

JOHNSON: It is a very uplifting – The interesting thing for us is as we’ve tracked the populations, the people who came the first year are still coming. We did an interview on another station the other day with Covenant Presbyterian Church, and their group has been coming for four years and every year the group gets bigger but because it’s been such a meaningful event. And I will tell you, for all the people I talk to that come to this event, they say the next morning they are changed in ways they never expected by the act of just doing something like this.

CAVANAUGH: And it’s very important for you to have a big youth involvement in this event. Why is that?

JOHNSON: Well, I think it’s amazing. You know, I think we see all the bad things about our kids on television. You know, we have really good kids. Unfortunately about 2 or 3% of them seem to get all the press, and if you saw what the young people do when they come out, they have a ball. These things weren’t available when I was a kid. And I really am jealous of all of the experiences that these young people have but they’re very sensitive about their environment, they’re very sensitive about people who do not have things, and so for them it’s not just an event, something to come and do, many of those kids then go and get involved in projects. This year, I participated in four different high schools who had small sleepouts, either on their campuses or in their rec halls, so the thing is spreading. By the way, on the same night that we’re having our Sleepless, the Los Angeles Mission and the Orange County Mission, two of the largest Missions in the country are also doing Sleepless events, and a small Mission up in Oceanside called Bread of Life will also be doing one. So we have four Sleeplesses going on in Southern California this Saturday night.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, Peter, how is the Regional Task Force on Homelessness participating in this event?

CALLSTROM: Oh, we’re actively involved. We’re going to be there as a booth and we’re great supporters of the Rescue Mission. They do fabulous work. I just wanted to say, too, about having the youth involved, I think being able to get them involved at an early age really builds empathy and when we have more empathy and understanding then people figure out solutions. They’re going to do something about it versus looking at it from a distance without any experience and perhaps judging and having the wrong impression of what it means to be homeless. I don’t think beyond a very small fraction of folks would choose to be homeless, maybe, and that could be because of mental illness and then it’s still not – it’s not what they want. And imagine if you were sleeping last night in this rain. You know, where would you go? And there’s only so many places where folks can go when we have inclement weather. And when it’s like this, it’s a tragic night for people. You know, people’s lives are at risk and we need to be able to do more in order to help people return to lives of dignity. That’s what this is all about. And great organizations like Herb’s and Father Joe’s and Alpha Project and so many more, I mean there’s 50-plus unique nonprofit social service providers in our county alone providing 300-plus distinct programs for people. You know, we have a lot of great solutions right here in the county and we should be very proud of that. We’re making a big difference. And if not for those great providers, the number that we count or report on could be way higher than it is. But we’re making inroads. The numbers have grown, but I think it’s, again, clearly due to terrible economic conditions and so many other factors that lead to people losing hope and ending up on the streets.

CAVANAUGH: Herb, tell us again how – if people are interested in participating, they can participate in the “Sleepless in San Diego” event.

JOHNSON: It’s and – or you can go to our website, which is, which has a link on there. It’s important to get the registrations done online so we have an idea of how many folks are coming. It is a wonderful, wonderful experience. And I’m glad, Maureen, you asked me about uplifting. I have never left one of these and heard anybody said I feel sad. It is a wonderful, joyous evening.


JOHNSON: The kids have a great time. A parent told me last year, I have never sat down and had to talk to my own 13-year-old for 4 hours at a time. So…


JOHNSON: …maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad…


JOHNSON: …but they all said they had a wonderful time.

CAVANAUGH: And there’s also an expo event that starts at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.

JOHNSON: And we will close up on Sunday morning at 7:00 a.m. with a little bit of a wake-up call, some music and some coffee and a real short – small continental breakfast. So you’ll be home by 8:00, 8:30 and you will have had a great experience. But come at three o’clock for the expo on Saturday afternoon.

CAVANAUGH: And once again, the “Sleepless in San Diego” event takes place this weekend at Liberty Station in Point Loma. And you can go to for more information. I want to thank you so much, Peter Callstrom. Herb Johnson, thank you so much for coming in. I appreciate it.

JOHNSON: Thank you so much.

CALLSTROM: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And if you’d like to comment, you can go online, Coming up, we’ll discuss the question of who controls the means of reproduction. That’s ahead as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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