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San Diego Columnist Shares His Experience With Homelessness

Dan McSwain
Dan McSwain, a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
San Diego Columnist Shares His Experience With Homelessness
San Diego Columnist Shares His Experience With HomelessnessGUEST:Dan McSwain, business columnist, The San Diego Union-Tribune

During our show devoted to homelessness and San Diego we talk about the various ways our County is trying to address the issue. While the homeless numbers overall have decreased slightly, the number of people living unsheltered in our County and on the streets of San Diego has had a dramatic increase. One survey conducted last month in the city found a 43% increase over last year. Longtime San Diego business columnist Dan McSwain was the plea in the Union Tribune last week for San Diego and stick it serious about finding a solution and he is in a unique position to call for action. He outlined his own experience with homelessness and addiction about 20 years ago. Joining me is Dan McSwain and welcome. Thank you. Have you talked much publicly about your struggles before now? Not much. Wrote a column 10 years after I got sober and stopped drinking and using drugs. Full-time. That was published in the old North County Times and then when I became that Union Tribune's business columnist, I briefly mentioned some of my experience in my very first column and it is on my online disclosure page where I disclose all kinds of stuff. Why did you want to outline this so explicitly now? I thought about it and I talked to my boss, I was passionate about doing a series of columns that looks at San Diego's homelessness problem. I felt obliged to readers to disclose that I had experienced that situation myself now just to be clear, my experience with homelessness was relatively brief period a few days and weeks here and there in between stays in jail or drug rehab or alcohol rehab centers and group homes over a period of years in the early 1990s. I was not one of the folks on the sidewalk was there for years and years. I don't have a direct connection to that but I came close unfortunately. Me ask you this, estimates there manly -- many homeless are dealing with mental illness, do you think you were at that time? I was mentally ill. People ask me, okay, so are you a bad person? Are you weak willed? Or are you mentally ill? Answer, a personal answer was, yes to all three. I need a series of very bad choices in my late 20s. At age 29 I was so successful businessman, business owner, a technology business that require a lot of effort and mental energy. By age 32 I was camped out in an abandoned building with no money, using alcohol and drugs full-time. So I did not get there accidentally. But once I reached that state, I lost the power of choice. I was not able to wake up on a Monday and say, okay, it is time to stop and go back to real life. You write that being present during the healing others can be transformative, is that what seemed you? It is still a mystery to me as to what saved me. There were lots of determined people along the way including a police sergeant who made it his business to lock me up every time I was not behaving. Every time my behavior was not changing, there was a salesman who spent hours and hours with me of his own time trying to show me how he recovered. There was a retired priest who took me into his home for well more than one year. I was there three different times, the last time I was there 13 months. One point I try to make in the column was, my experience was that pulling me out of the abyss require a whole lot of human resources and a whole lot of determined effort. But cannot yes, working with other people, especially in my friend father Bob's group home, whiskey to that experience. It -- was key to that experience. What is San Diego doing wrong in trying to solve homelessness in your opinion? San Diego spends a lot of money. No one is sure how much. When you look together all of the nonprofit, charitable outfits and I would like to get a good handle on it. We are spending lots of money and we have lots of good, well intentioned people who are working really hard. We do appear to lack a high-level coordination were one person or one team is in charge of trying to sort out all the resources and make sure they are being used most effectively. And the people are collaborating, we have many agencies doing their own thing. But the important point I tried to make in the column is, my story -- my personal story -- was that of recovery and going from being a drain on the system to a taxpaying citizen who arguably helps the system. That is not how everyone turns out. There are people, lots of people, who are hopeless. They will die on the streets. They will not recover. We as a society have to figure out what we do for those people. I wonder, what is one thing you would like people to understand about people who are struggling with addiction and homelessness? The American medical Association has considered alcoholism a severe mental illness since 1956. They expanded that definition to other drugs in the years that have followed. The estimates are as high as 80% of the people we see living on the street has some form of severe mental illness. Now so that is addiction and some of it is organic problems like schizophrenia, there is forms of psychosis, severe bipolar manic depression, these people are sick. If four out of five people on the street are absolutely mentally ill, at some point we as a society have to start treating them like sick people who need help who cannot help themselves. So a whole bunch of strenuous government and nonprofit efforts that require people to change their behavior before they can get help, is probably putting the cart before the horse. I have been speaking with Dan McSwain San Diego Union Tribune business columnist.

Last week, media organizations in San Diego used the power of words and images to bring attention to homelessness in the area.

Among those snapshots was a piece by Dan McSwain, a business columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune. For him, homelessness is personal.

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The column appeared to be about a mystery: Why is the number of homeless people on San Diego streets increasing when there are programs, funding and concern from officials more than ever?

Then the story took a surprising turn.

While many people look at this big, complex human problem and become hopeless at the prospect of trying to solve it, McSwain wrote that he was not one of them.

That's because he himself spent several years drunk and drugged on the street and in jail.

"I was passionate about a series of columns that takes a look at San Diego's homelessness," McSwain told KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday. "And I felt obliged to readers to disclose that I had experienced that situation myself."

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McSwain said that to be clear, his experience with homelessness was relatively short — a few days and weeks in between stays in jail, rehabilitation centers and group homes in the early 1990s.

He credited the persistence of other people for helping him help himself. He has been sober — and productive — for 19 years, but it took time as well as human and financial resources to change his behavior.

"Working with other people was key to that experience," McSwain said. "It was absolutely miraculous."

He said that despite well-intentioned people and money spent by the city, coordination of efforts seems to be lacking.

"The important point I tried to make in that column is that my personal story was that of recovery, going from being a drain on the system to a tax-paying citizen who arguably helps the system," McSwain said. "But that isn't how everybody turns out. There are lots of people who are pretty much hopeless, and they're going to die out on the streets. They will not recover. And we as a society have to figure out what we're going to do for those people."