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San Diego Rescue Mission partners with Little Italy to help unsheltered population there

Homelessness has been a constant issue for San Diego. The Little Italy Association wanted to help those on the street in their neighborhood but didn’t have the resources to do so. That’s where the partnership with the San Diego Rescue Mission began.

Carla Vanegas is one of the two homeless outreach coordinators for the Rescue Mission.

“We got the great opportunity to partner up with Little Italy and coming out here and seeing how we can meet people exactly where they’re at, which is on the street,” Vanegas said.

San Diego Rescue Mission outreach employee with homeless man and his dog in .png
Carlos Castillo
San Diego Rescue Mission Outreach Coordinator Carla Vanegas with outreach client Robert and his dog Jolee in Little Italy on Dec. 7, 2021.

More than 19 years ago, the Rescue Mission helped Vanegas and her children get off the street.

“I needed someone to care for me, to have compassion for me and to help me along and that’s what the San Diego Rescue Mission did for me,” Vanegas said. “They took me in and they helped me, and they cared for me and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and that’s what I get to do now. I get to come back to the street and I get to help these people believe in themselves again. Believe in hope again.”

The outreach team drives a van full of supplies and resources all around Little Italy, from Laurel to Ash streets, seven days a week from 6 a.m. to noon.

“This program allows me to show up every day. To show up every day and to say, ‘What can we do today to help move you forward?’” Vanegas said. “No matter what that looks like. Just showing up and being consistent helps them to believe that we care and we’re here to help them in any way that we can.”

Some of the short term relief the outreach program provides are clothing, food, hygiene packages. The program also provides help to navigate other resources available to unsheltered individuals.

“We will help them with ID vouchers, birth certificate vouchers, appointments to Social Security or help them navigate how to get some benefits to help them,” Vanegas said.

The outreach team has built some great relationships with unsheltered “regulars” who frequent the streets of Little Italy. One of them is Robert, who did not disclose his last name.

“She spoils me rotten, got coffee and breakfast every morning," he said, referring to Venegas. "It’s kind of really neat to have somebody show up, you look forward to. My dog looks forward to her. She brings us treats.”

Robert has been homeless for twenty years. He and his dog Jolee have both benefited from the outreach program.

“We’re doing great. A lot better because of her,” Robert said. “Thanks to Carla. I’m really proud of her for helping me out like she does.”

Vanegas has helped Robert obtain proper identification, get his birth certificate and even go to doctor appointments.

“He’s allowing me to help him and navigate through all his basic necessities and the next thing is to try and get him matched up to housing,” she said.

San Diego Rescue Mission outreach coordinator Carla Vanegas loading up outreach van.png
Carlos Castillo
San Diego Rescue Mission Outreach Coordinator Carla Vanegas gets ready to load up the outreach van with freshly made bagged lunches at the San Diego Rescue Mission in downtown San Diego on Dec. 7, 2021.

The funds for the outreach program came from county grant money requested by the Little Italy Association, which then matched it.

“This is not the end result that everybody wants, which is housing for everybody, but it’s a great interim step and they’re the people that do it best,” said Marco Li Mandri, Little Italy's chief executive administrator.

The purpose of the outreach program is to build trust amongst the homeless community through consistency.

“We’re leveraging a best practice model, which is to be in a tight geographic area, consistently over and over and over again with the same people, so that we can build trust and rapport with the people in that geographic area," said Paul Armstrong, the vice president of programs for the San Diego Rescue Mission. "And when they’re ready, we’re ready and we can help them take that step forward.”

The system can be difficult to navigate, he said.

“This is a relational issue and this is a community connection piece,” Armstrong said, “So, what we really want to do is we want to help people get connected and then walk alongside them so they can get to wholeness.”

The goal of this partnership: When a person is ready to get off the streets of Little Italy, they have the resources to do so from people they have built a trusting relationship with.

“We will make a difference,” Vanegas said. “Even if it’s one person at a time, we will.”