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Homeless Campground In San Diego Providing Lifeline For 40 Children

Azaura Anjos, 10, holds her journal that she uses to write about people she has met at the homeless transitional camp, Oct. 17, 2017.
Susan Murphy
Azaura Anjos, 10, holds her journal that she uses to write about people she has met at the homeless transitional camp, Oct. 17, 2017.
Homeless Campground In San Diego Providing Lifeline For 40 Children

It has been two weeks since the opening of a temporary city-sanctioned campground for 200 homeless people near downtown San Diego. One thing that was not quite expected is the dozens of children who have moved in. For now, the large, fenced-in stretch of black pavement covered in colorful tents and canopies is the best option they have for a home.

“They feed us, they give us clothes, they give us shoes,” said Azaura Anjos, 10, smiling as she proudly described her new community, where she lives with her parents, aunt and six siblings.

At 4-and-a-half-feet tall with brown, shoulder-length hair and luminous brown eyes, Anjos recalled sleeping in a downtown park before moving to the homeless transitional camp.

“It wasn’t very comfortable because we would lay in the grass, but then we would have to move off the grass and onto concrete because the … sprinklers would come on,” Anjos described. “But the lights at the park never turned off. So we all put our heads under the blankets.”

Anjos said from the moment she moved into her new green, six-person tent she has felt cared for.

“They don't treat us like we're in a bad situation, and I don’t act like we’re in a bad situation or think we’re in a bad situation,” said Anjos. “I think we’re actually in a house, ‘cause that’s how they treat us.”

The campsite holds nearly 150 tents, along with showers and toilets, hand-washing stations and shuttle transportation. Meals and snacks are provided, and health workers and housing navigators are also onsite.

One of the most popular amenities is a play area with toys and games for kids. That is because, of the 200 people who live at the camp, almost a quarter are children.

“They’re safe. That’s the key,” said Bob McElroy, CEO of the Alpha Project, the nonprofit managing the camp.

“We had no idea that we’d have 40 kids and ten families or so, but we’re making it happen,” said McElroy, sitting in a metal chair at the camp, surrounded by six children who seemed to understand he is the one providing their lifeline.

“Inside that door?” a toddler boy asks McElroy, pointing to the Alpha Project's mobile office.

“What’s inside that door? McElroy responds to the little boy. “Oh, I don’t go in there cause those people try to make me work, and I’d rather be out here with you,” he chuckled.

McElroy, who has worked to help homeless people for 30 years, said the children have given him a renewed purpose.

“They’re dolls,” he said. “Living in not the best case scenario, but they’re safe, they have access to health care. We’ve got some decent meals in here.”

Bob McElroy, CEO of the Alpha Project, talks to children at the homeless transitional camp near downtown San Diego, Oct. 17, 2017.
Bob McElroy, CEO of the Alpha Project, talks to children at the homeless transitional camp near downtown San Diego, Oct. 17, 2017.

Overall, the camp is running smoothly, McElroy said, crediting his staff of 30 who work around the clock taking care of people and keeping resources flowing.

But challenges are ongoing, he said, including transporting 200 people to downtown and getting kids to school and back.

“But when I come down and hang out with the kids, it keeps me showing up,” he said.

Children are not the typical face of San Diego’s homeless population. They are rarely seen panhandling or pushing overstuffed carts. But a count taken in January found 976 homeless children in the county, with 169 sleeping without shelter.

Christine Wade, 31, and her six children ages 2 to 14, who have been struggling with homelessness for several years, moved into the camp the morning it opened.

“It was a beautiful moment,” Wade said, tears streaming down her cheek as she sat inside her tent surrounded by her children. “Because being out there’s too hard. So when they came to get us it was like a moment of finally.”

Wade, a San Diego native who grew up in the East County, said her children are sleeping fairly well and getting their daily routine down, which includes school and preschool.

“I’m grateful for everything that we get,” Wade said, “because I didn’t think I was going to get help ever. I thought I was just going to continue to try to make it on my own.”

Christine Wade, 31, and her six children sit in their tent at the city of San Diego's transitional homeless camp near downtown, Oct. 12, 2017.
Susan Murphy
Christine Wade, 31, and her six children sit in their tent at the city of San Diego's transitional homeless camp near downtown, Oct. 12, 2017.

Wade’s sentiment of gratitude is shared by many at the camp. Parents said they are pulling together to help one another.

“It’s nice for the kids to be able to talk to other kids and the parents to be able to talk to other parents,” said Abbra Towe, 35, whose family also moved into the camp on opening day.

Towe and her two daughters, ages 5 and 7, sleep in one tent while her husband sleeps in his own tent in a section with other men.

“We are in a better place than on the streets,” Towe said. “But there’s still people with issues. And it can be concerning.”

During the first few days, Towe, who is a certified lifeguard, was worried about how this experience would impact her children. But not so much anymore.

“These children, they are going to change the world,” Towe said, choking back tears. “They are learning right now what I’m learning at 35. And they’re smart and strong, and that’s what they’re going to get out of it.”

Little Azaura Anjos has been writing about her camp experience and interviewing people she meets.

“She was born in Philadelphia. She has blue eyes. She only sings for fun,” said Anjos, enthusiastically reading from her journal she carries with her.

Anjos will likely live at the campground a couple more months until her family can transition into the city’s bridge shelter tents, scheduled to open in December. Or better yet, a place with a front door and walls.

Anjos said she will always remember the friends she made and the time she lived amid rows of tents.

“How grateful I am, and how well they took care of me,” Anjos said. “And how well they took care of my family.”

Homeless Campground In San Diego Providing Lifeline For 40 Children
Homeless Campground In San Diego Providing Lifeline For 40 Children GUESTS:Jennifer Coronel, program manager Children and Youth in Transition, San Diego Unified School District Susie Terry, project specialist Homeless Education Services, San Diego County Office of Education

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. It has been just over two weeks since the opening of a campground for homeless people in downtown San Diego. One of our reporters recently visited to see how things are going. She says one thing no one asked acted with the large number of children who have built-in. -- Expected was the large number of children who have moved in.They feed us. They give us clothes and shoes.This 10-year-old was sleeping in a downtown park before moving to the homeless transitional camp with her parents and six siblings.It was not very comfortable. We would lay in the grass, but then we would have to move off the grass onto concrete because the sprinklers would come on. But, the lights at the park never turned off. It was like, turn them off. We all put our heads under blankets.At 4 1/2 feet tall with Ron shoulder league -- link hail, -- length hair, [ Indiscernible ].I think we are in a house. That is how they treat us.The temporary campsite is filled with tents, showers, toilets, and handwashing service --. One of the most popular amenities is a play area with toys and games for kids. That is because, of the 200 people who live at the camp, almost a quarter of them are children.This man who manages the camp says the large number of children was not expected.We had no idea that we would have this many kids. But, we are making it happen.He has worked to help homeless people for 30 years. He says the children have given him a renewed purpose.Grandpa.They look at him as a grandpa figure.What's inside that door?Inside the door? I don't go in there because the people out there try to make me work. I want to hang out here with you.He and his staff of 30 work around the clock taking care people and keeping resources flowing. He says there have been plenty of challenges, including transporting 200 people to downtown, and getting children to school and back. Children are not the typical face of San Diego's homeless population. They are releasing panhandling. But, -- rarely seen panhandling.Being out there is too hard. So, when they came to get us, it was like a moment of, finally, you know.Christine and her six children, with one on the way, have been struggling with homeless -- holiness for three years. The family moved into the camp the morning and (I am grateful for everything.Families say they are pulling together to help one another.35-year-old Ambra and her family moved into the camp two weeks ago.We are in a better place than on the streets. There are still people with issues, and there stood -- and it can be concerning.She and her daughter sleep and one 10. Her husband sleeps in his own tent in a section for men. She said she was worried about how this experience would impact her children. But, not so much anymore.They are going to change the world. They are smart and strong. That is what they're going to get out of it.This little girl has been worked -- writing about her camping experience and interviewing people.She has blue eyes --She will likely live at the campground a few more months until her family can transition to -- into a place with four walls.How grateful I am for how well they took care of me. And how well they took care of my family.Susan Murphy, KPBS news.Joining me now is the program manager for children in transition. Jennifer, welcome.Thank you very much.And [ Indiscernible ]. Susie, welcome.Thank you.Let me start with you Susie. We see the number of children at the city's homeless encampment came as a surprise. Should it have? Haven't the city and County none about kids living in sheltered?Yes. I think there is an awareness of the number of students experiencing homelessness in the County. Our office collects data on that annually that we report to the California Department of Education. But, I believe that not all community organizations like the alpha project that does amazing work with mostly adults, were aware of what the resources are, what to do when families with children present themselves.Jennifer, the 10-year-old girl we heard from, we know that since she spoke with Susan she enrolled in the Monarch school. What is the district doing to make sure these kids who may be moving from district to district, what are they doing to make sure they do go to school ?every school district has liaisons who are in regular contract -- contact and we meet our monthly -- a monthly basis. We support these children as best we can. Our main goal is school debility so we want to keep the children enrolled in their school. We work with districts to come up with a plan to keep them in their school. That might include funding or sharing transportation or providing resources to assist with that.There are schools in San Diego that are specifically for homeless students. Tell us about that.The Monarch school is the only one. They are a program of the city and County office of education. They have specific services for students and families experiencing homelessness. All school districts in the county are required by law to educate their students in similar circumstances, and provide the same level of supports and resources so that they can stay in school.Is the Monarch school for? Is it accepting more students ?as of this morning, I have not confirmed with them, but I have heard that in many grade they are full.Jennifer, Susie just talked about how schools are required to help students who do not have permanent residences to maintain going to school and so forth. How do they go about doing that? How do they help those homeless students ?our office supports the students in many different ways. We offer transportation, clothing. Many of our school sites have food pantries. We offer school supplies. Within my office we have resource teachers that go out and work one-on-one and provide mentor relationships with students who are at risk and need more supports.We heard that before the kids came into this campground that they were sleeping rough. They had to sleep on grass and so forth. How does a child managed to do homework or study under a circumstance like that ?that is a great question. Our office provides training to school site -- sites. Trauma informed training. That means we are giving the adults an understanding of what the population at her school sites are. Knowing that a lot of them have experience trauma of some sort. What are the strategies we can use with these units. What are the resources our district provides for the students.Susie, you are in the middle of collecting donations for homeless students in San Diego. What kinds of things are you collecting?We are always collecting donations for school supplies. We do a large school supply drive annually in partnership with the San Diego credit Union. We collect new, unused backpacks, binders, paper, crayons, pencils. Anything you would normally buy for a student going back to school, K-12.Any personal items of clothing ?we do collect those items. It is not as large an effort as the school supply. When we do receive them we make sure we get them to school sites or down to Monarch where they can be used.I know you are both planning to visit the encampment today in San Diego. What are you hoping to find out, Jennifer?We are looking for students are not currently attending school. We want to share with their families what those options are.Susie, are you also going to be listening to find out what these kids have gone through?Yes, of course. One of the requirements or options under the law is that if any of the students were attending school before they got displaced, that they have an option to return to the school that they already know, and where people already know them. It would be a good way, for Jennifer and I, one of our goals is to see if we can make that happen so that the students have some stability in their life. So that they are not changing schools and having to be around more strangers. If we can keep them in the school where they were already enrolled, that will provide a little stability during this time. That is one of the things we are hoping we can help with when we meet with them today.I have been speaking with Jennifer Carnell with the San Diego unified school district, and Susie Terry. Thank you very much.Thank you.