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Sheltering The Homeless In San Diego

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Aired 9/21/10

As the location of a new winter shelter is debated, we discuss the people who make up San Diego's homeless. Each year at this time, the San Diego City Council debates where this year's temporary winter homeless shelter should be located. We'll hear what's being proposed and get a glimpse at the diverse backgrounds and needs of San Diego's homeless.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Last night, the San Diego City Council took up the issue of where to locate this year’s temporary winter homeless shelter, and then decided to postpone a decision. We’ll find out more from the KPBS reporter who attended the council meeting. But while the city hammers out this year’s shelter plans, volunteers are working to find out more about San Diego's homeless population. In all likelihood, they'll find some of the stories, backgrounds and aspirations of this population will challenge stereotypes. And, they may find that as the diversity of our homeless population increases, so do their needs. I’d like to introduce my guest. Kyla Calvert is a reporter for KPBS. And good morning, Kyla.

KYLA CALVERT (Reporter, KPBS): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And later in the program we’ll hear from Bob McElroy, founder of the Alpha Project, an organization that gets the homeless off the streets and into jobs. So, Kyla, why was the decision on the homeless shelter postponed?

CALVERT: Basically, a bunch of neighborhood residents and, you know, business people showed up to oppose the location. And there was – I think, annually, there’s sort of a lot of pushback from different council members, too, about the location and a lot of people feel that – This’ll be the fourth – if this proposed location is approved, at 13th and G Street, it’ll be the fourth year that it’s sort of in the middle of the East Village area and I think a lot of people – or, a lot of people said that this neighborhood’s really done its share.

CAVANAUGH: Right. We have heard that before, as you say, from year to year about locating a temporary winter shelter in the East Village. This location, however, was slightly removed from the location the winter shelter has been at for the past several years. Why the move and where abouts would this new winter shelter be located if, indeed, that’s the location the city council approves?

CALVERT: Well, the proposed location is the block that is bounded by 13th and 14th Streets and then F and G Streets. And right now it’s a parking lot. It’s slated to become a park next year, so the reasons that they sort of laid out for choosing that location is the size. You know, it’s large enough to accommodate the pop-up structure that they use. There are available utility hookups. It’s close to public transportation. It’s walkable from where there are a lot of services for the homeless population already and it’s city owned. So they don’t have to sort of finagle with any private property owners or pay for the location. So…

CAVANAUGH: What did the opponents of this tell the city council?

CALVERT: Well, they – there were sort of a couple of themes. One of the large group of – one of the larger groups of people in the area who showed up to oppose the location were students and faculty members from the NewSchool of Architecture & Design, which is on a block adjacent to this – the spot that they’re proposing, and several students talked about being harassed by the homeless who are already in the neighborhood and they basically said that it’s a security concern – or, a safety concern for the students there. People talked about the property values of condos that are already sort of – the glut of condos that are already sort of on the market in that area and, you know, again, just this sense that, okay, the neighborhood has accommodated this temporary shelter for three years now and it’s time to have some other part of the city sort of pick up the burden, I guess.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with KPBS reporter Kyla Calvert, and we’re talking about the San Diego City Council discussion last night about where to place a temporary winter homeless shelter this year. Kyla, when does the city want to have this shelter up and running?

CALVERT: The shelter program for the downtown shelter and then also a shelter for veterans in the Midway area is funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and that funding starts December first. But the Alpha Project for the homeless is willing to put up the money to open it at – for Thanksgiving and then the grant funding runs for 120 days, so it would be open through March is…

CAVANAUGH: And how many people will – would this facility serve?

CALVERT: About – It would house about 200 individuals. It’s for the – The facility serves individual adults.

CAVANAUGH: What, if anything, has changed with how the city’s handling the winter homeless shelter this year?

CALVERT: Well, this is the first year that they have transferred sort of the oversight of this program to the San Diego Housing Commission. It’s not being overseen by a city agency. And I – From some of the comments of city council members last night, I got the sense that this – that people hoped that this would sort of remove some of the politics around where to locate the shelter but that doesn’t seem to have played out that way.

CAVANAUGH: So, all right then, so this vote was postponed. There is no location that’s been designated. What – Where do we go from here? What does the city council plan to do? Are they going to take more testimony, are they going to have another vote? What happens now?

CALVERT: They’ve asked the staff from the Housing Commission to sort of reconsider a couple of the locations that they dropped for various reasons, and they also encouraged them to try to negotiate with the Padres to use some portion of Petco or the land surrounding. A couple of them sort of voiced frustration over the Padres’ lack of interest in helping out with this program. And they also asked for some crime statistics about, you know, are area residents’ concerns about safety, you know, played out in – by looking at what has happened in terms of crime surrounding the winter shelter in past years.

CAVANAUGH: Do we know if any locations outside the East Village are being seriously considered?

CALVERT: One of the ones that the city council members seemed particularly interested in was on Newton Avenue, which is sort of just south of Petco Park and Commercial, I think. And where the shelter was located in – I think in 2006. I believe it’s the same location. And so that seemed to be a site that they were – they thought might be viable and sort of more palatable to certain people so…

CAVANAUGH: And when are they expecting to vote on this again?

CALVERT: They’ll take it up again on October 4th.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, thank you very much. Thanks for cluing us in, Kyla.

CALVERT: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Kyla Calvert. She is a reporter for KPBS, and you’re listening to KPBS on – These Days on KPBS.


CAVANAUGH: Joining me now is Bob McElroy. He is the founder of the Alpha Project, an organization that gets the homeless off the streets and into jobs and has overseen the city’s temporary winter homeless shelter. And, Bob, good morning.

BOB McELROY (Founder, Alpha Project): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: What’s your take on the city council discussion last night?

McELROY: Am I allowed to use expletives?

CAVANAUGH: Do you feel you need to?

McELROY: It’s more of the same. I mean, you know, I was talking to a few folks yesterday before this, doing some interviews, and, you know, I said, you know, we should just play back the city council minutes for the last ten years and you’re going to hear the same rhetoric over the same issue with the same players. And actually Channel 10 went back and looked at the minutes over the last 20 years, city council minutes, this particular subject has been brought up 241 times at city council and yet here we are, 20 years later still talking about the same thing.

CAVANAUGH: And why is it this broken record at the city council? Why do you think this comes up over and over again?

McELROY: It’s the lack of political will. That’s the reason why homeless people are on the streets. It’s not about the money. It’s not about agencies. I’ve been on every task force and every gold or blue ribbon task force and mayor’s task force on the homeless over the last 25 years. Us providers together, along with the police, redevelopment agencies, city officials, residents, 25 years ago came up with plans over these years, gold plated plans that are collecting dust on a shelf somewhere at city hall, that would’ve solved this problem decades ago and yet there’s never been the political will to allow us to implement those plans. So here we are today because of the lack of – just like last night, it’s the same rhetoric, the same – well, maybe there’s a better place. If you put it on the moon, the ‘Save the Crater’ people will be mad. If you put it in the desert, the ‘Save the Sand Dunes’ people will be mad. If you put it in the ocean, the ‘Save the Whales…’ There is no right place. But the fact is that the highest concentration of the homeless are in East Village. And somebody mentioned something about crime. The police department testifies every year that crime goes down when the winter shelter’s open.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

McELROY: And obviously, you’ve got 220 people inside as opposed to outside. And, you know, it’s just NIMBY rhetoric and it’s unfounded but, unfortunately, it sticks.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know, Bob, that this week you’re working with an organization called Common Ground and you’re conducting a survey of the people who are living on the streets of San Diego. How has that been going?

McELROY: Outstanding. I had some reservations about waking people up at four o’clock in the morning but, you know, so far it’s – everybody’s been cooperative and enthusiastic and I’m – I can’t wait until Friday until we can get the actual statistics. I think it’s going to validate a lot of things that we, as providers, have been saying all these years, that, you know, we’ve just got a bunch of sick, old poor people out there, most of them trapped in mental illness. Most, you know, all of them poor and disenfranchised. And there’s just no place at the inn for them.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit of exactly how this survey is being conducted. You go around and you wake people up at 4:00 a.m.?

McELROY: Well, we’ve had our outreach teams out there for – we’re out every day, Alpha Project teams, so we’ve been letting people know that we would be coming. There was a training held on Sunday to, you know, to help, you know, people, you know, be a little bit sensitive to when they walk up on a…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

McELROY: …camp. But I haven’t heard of any issues of anybody being angry at all and, you know, they get a little gift certificate for Jack In the Box but people have been willing – And we’ve been trying to tell the folks on the street, you need to speak up because your voice is never heard and here’s an opportunity for you to be a part of the process.

CAVANAUGH: And what will you do with what you learn in this survey?

McELROY: Well, that’s the – We’re going to have a bunch of great statistics and numbers and there’s a whole bunch of people out there and we’re going to have a better idea on who – on how critical the needs are for some of these people but – or for probably most of these people. But, once again, it’s going to go back to the lack of political will. You know, we’ve done these things in the past, probably not as comprehensive as this, but if we don’t build the supportive housing, if somebody doesn’t stand up and say, okay, we need to fix this issue and be serious about it, we’re going to be sitting here talking 25 years from now about the same thing.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Bob McElroy. He’s founder of the Alpha Project. And, you know, Bob, Union-Tribune reporter Michael Stetz wrote an article recently that introduced us to a number of individuals who make up San Diego’s homeless population. I know that you worked with him on that article and I wonder if you could just talk to us for a few minutes about some of the people he wrote about. There’s a woman in the article. Her name is Lola…

McELROY: Lola.

CAVANAUGH: …Dotson.

McELROY: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: She’s a great grandmother.

McELROY: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: You know her. What can you tell us about her?

McELROY: She’s trapped in mental illness and covered with spider bites. I mean, she’s been out there for decades. I think she said ten years but she’s been out there longer than that. I’ve – I know her from way back when, when East Village was a warehouse district. By the way, Michael did a great job, spent a lot of time with folks. But just like I said, trapped in mental illness. She – Most folks who are in that situation don’t think that they have a mental health problem and they self-medicate with other things that make them feel better and she does that. And outstanding, outstanding lady, very classy, very respectful, lots of dignity but she’s trapped. And she’s not going anywhere. We finally got her into a clinic to address the spider bite issue but, you know, just another example of the lack of will to truly help people.

CAVANAUGH: Where does she live?

McELROY: Right on the corner of 13th and K.

CAVANAUGH: And you’ve used that term, Bob, a couple of times ‘trapped in mental illness.’ What do you mean by that?

McELROY: Well, you can’t cure mental illness. You can manage mental illness but you can’t really – I mean, when you’re talking about people trapped in schizophrenia and things like this, we can help manage it. The problem is is when we try and do it on an outpatient scenario, under the worst case scenario while somebody’s on the streets. As I said, most crazy people like me, we don’t think we’re crazy. Everybody else is crazy. And so, you know, that’s one of the beauties about the winter shelter. It gives us an opportunity to have people, a captive audience, for 120 days and to get people weaned off of the fun stuff, you know, drugs, booze. I mean, the Gaslamp’s full of drunks every Friday and Saturday night.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

McELROY: And yet, you know, but it gives us an opportunity to get people to believe in their medications, that – You know, psychotropic medications don’t make you feel good and it takes time for people to – for their bodies to acclimate to that and get them to believe that they can actually feel better on prescribed medications than they can by self-medicating. But it takes time. You can’t do that when you’re just out there talk, you know, communicating with people on a day-to-day basis on the street.

CAVANAUGH: Just a couple more questions about Lola Dotson, who was profiled in this article by Michael Stetz in the U-T. You say that she says that she’s been on the street for ten years, you think it’s longer, just how old is she?

McELROY: She’s in her seventies. She’s in her seventies.

CAVANAUGH: I think a lot of people think, you know, well, people who are in their seventies are going to get, you know, they’re going to get help from the government, they’re going to get their Medicare, they’re going to get their social security. What happens to that?

McELROY: Well, she does get a benefit but it’s $600.00 a month and where can you live in San Diego on $600.00 a month? And so what most people do is, is that – And there’s a couple dirty little secrets here. But most people, they’ll get a – what they call a tramp motel for a week, you know, that costs a couple hundred dollars and they’ll, you know, have some time – a respite off the streets, have a couple decent meals, and then their money’s gone. Another little thing is that people get their checks, they go to a liquor store because they can’t have a bank account because of bad credit. They go to a liquor store, they cash their money, and they get the crap beat out of them every first and third of the month. We see them come in. Lola, it just happened to her. She got beat up and her money taken because the bad guys know who gets the checks on the first and the third of every month. That happens and nobody ever talks about it. But you’ll see women walk in the winter shelter, the Neil Good Day Center, with broken noses, their eyes bashed in, and it’s just like clockwork. And whether you care about the homeless or not, that’s taxpayer money.

CAVANAUGH: Another person who was profiled in this article is a man named Melvin Price. I know you know him, too, Bob, so tell us about him.

McELROY: Umm-hmm. Melvin in the van?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

McELROY: Yeah, he’s got a broken down, dilapidated van. He’s handicapped. And he tries to stay out of people’s way. He uses – utilizes the Neil Good Day Center to shower, to get his mail and message and, you know, have a little respite from the streets and then he takes off at 4:30 and tries to find a place where he can park his van for the evening. But everybody knows who he is, everybody being the different police departments, whether it be the San Diego or the Port, and he’s got several tickets that he can’t pay so that goes into warrants. And then he’s working off some – he’ll work off some time in community service but eventually he’ll – they’ll impound his van and he’ll be back on the bricks.

CAVANAUGH: Now there are a couple of really pretty young homeless people profiled in this article, too. And I think…

McELROY: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …a lot of people point to the young homeless as people who want to be homeless and kind of characterize a lot of the homeless population by that standard. Do you find that to be the case?

McELROY: Well, most people just think, you know, a young person on the street here, they can just, you know, get a job. But, I mean, you know, jobs, in the best case scenarios, are hard to find in San Diego if you have a place to stay and transportation and education and you have place to shower and get clean clothes. Those people are having a tough time finding a job so imagine trying to go find a job when you’re just came out of a bush and all your belongings are strapped in a plastic bag on your back and with no transportation. The chances of you getting a job are slim to none. So after a while—and people do try on a daily basis—after a while frustration sets in and they go into survival mode.

CAVANAUGH: As I say, you’ve been doing this survey of people living in the streets in San Diego and even though that there are a wider number and more diversity among the homeless population than perhaps there has been in the past, you still say that what we’re looking at here are people who are older and trapped in mental illness. That’s still the standard, you think.

McELROY: Absolutely. And that’s why, even with this year’s shelter, and I tried to communicate that last night, that, you know, the site for this new shelter is actually three or four blocks farther away from the services and 60 to 70% of the people that we have in the winter shelter are disabled senior citizens, so in wheelchairs and walkers and, you know, missing arms and legs and these type of things from diabetes and illness and stuff. And it’s going to make them far – they do access the Neil Good Day Center. It’s the only place the people can use the bathroom, take a shower and these type of things, get their mail and messages during the day. So it’s farther for them to have to trans – walk through the neighborhoods. And the food lines, access to food, Father Joe’s food line, Sister Winnie’s. So logistically it’s a tougher problem just for these people to get from point A to point B.

CAVANAUGH: That’s if the – if this new location on 13th Street is the one that they choose.

McELROY: Right. Hey, you know, the Padres’ parking lot, we were there one time before and we were there under the stipulation that we would never be there again. Newton Street was used for 8 years and there was an agreement made with the barrio neighborhood that 8 years was enough and that’s why we started this circus of the constantly changing winter shelter, so that’s not going to happen. So I think after another few weeks of delay we’re going to be back to square one at this identified site.

CAVANAUGH: How important, Bob, is it to tell the stories, to connect the faces with the statistics of the 8500 homeless people in San Diego?

McELROY: Well, because if people were to hear the word homeless and they, you know, most people’s experience of a homeless person is somebody sitting on a highway median or outside of a Walmart with an ‘I’ll work for food’ sign or a baglady or a dumpster diver or somebody passed out on the sidewalk. And it brings the human face to people. The youngster that we had at the Neil Good Day Center, the 19-year-old kid that wanted to go in the Army, we actually took him to the recruiting station and I haven’t see him since so, God willing, you know, he’s able – was able to get in the military. It puts a human face on it. The senior citizens, Lola, all the ladies that we have out there, instead of just labeling people with a name that brings a negative connotation to people, the human – These are human beings, human beings. And, you know, the cost to the city for the winter shelter is $12.00 a day for all the services that these people get. We have to, obviously, you know, raise money on top of that. Twelve dol – You can’t board your cat or dog for $12.00 a day. And yet these people are dehumanized with NIMBY rhetoric that they’re subhuman and they’re just like parapiriah on the streets and that’s just not the case. These are loving, sweet people. Many of them are very, very sick. You know, they need our help, they don’t need our scorn.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, some people have been following the news might be asking themselves, well, haven’t we been talking about making a permanent homeless shelter downtown? How many years out are we, do you think on something like that? That we may still need these temporary winter shelters.

McELROY: Well, at least a couple of years before they do the rehab for the World Trade Center. But I want people to clearly understand, while this is a blessing and we love it, we’re actually – We have an MOU with the agency to manage the 150 beds with PATH, the shelter beds. It’s going to be two hundred and, I think, 228, 230 people total going to be utilizing this year round facility. There’ll still be hundreds and hundreds of people all over the streets. So the dynamic or the huddled masses in East Village and all over downtown are going to remain there because we’re only going to be serving – When we have the winter shelter as it stands right now, we’re doing 220 people. And we have another 150 with the vet’s shelter, and still the streets are covered with homeless people out of 370 people off the streets. So I don’t want anybody to get the false impression that this year round facility is going to change the atmosphere or the environment of East Village or downtown. There’ll still be people everywhere.

CAVANAUGH: Now the San Diego City Council is going to take this issue up again about the temporary winter shelter on October 4th. If, indeed, they make a decision at that time, is that time enough to get the shelter up and running?

McELROY: It’s going to be close. You know, we always – and we open up – We always try and get open, you know, before Thanksgiving. I think that’s just – We just have to do that. I mean, that’s just not fair to people and it’s cold – If you’re out there today, I had my windshield wipers coming in town today.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

McELROY: It’s cold out there. So we would open November first if they would let us. The problem is politics won’t let us. So we’re praying that we’ll be able to, you know, put it together. Hopefully, they’ll come to a decision on October 4th and we can get started.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Bob, thanks so much. I appreciate your talking with us today.

McELROY: Appreciate it.

CAVANAUGH: Bob McElroy is founder of the Alpha Project. Earlier in our conversation I was speaking with Kyla Calvert, reporter for KPBS. And if you’d like to comment, you can go online at KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, lessons we can learn from the animals through biomimicry. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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