Jeeni Criscenzo moved to San Diego after the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush, having spent the previous year writing a daily blog called CPR4Democracy. In 2009, she noticed a homeless woman putting cardboard down on the street at night for her son. It motivated her to create Amikas, a 501(c) (3) organization dedicated to finding safe places for women and their children to sleep. Criscenzo was one of the founders of Women Occupy San Diego and remains active in supporting many liberal causes. In 2006 she was the Democratic candidate for the 49th Congressional District, running against Rep. Darrell Issa.
CityBeat: You’re a leading proponent for the “tiny houses” program for San Diego homeless. Where did the idea come from?
Jeeni Criscenzo: Every program to end homelessness in our area runs into a brick wall—we have no affordable housing. We are seeing the consequences of years of pandering to developers who don’t want to build affordable housing, and politicians who think, “If you don’t build it, the poor won’t come here.”
So we do all of these surveys and counts, gather all of this data, and get people’s hopes up that they are finally going to get housing. But little happens because there simply is no place for these people to go. The waiting list for Section 8 vouchers is more than 10 years! That means that the little boy I saw back in 2009 is probably going to have to wait another three years before he and his mom are going to get in an apartment.
So we need someplace for people to live in the meantime. That’s the key word “meantime.” By no stretch of the imagination are these shelters suitable housing.
But they are a hell of a lot better than a tarp stretched over two shopping carts!
CB: Who benefits from tiny houses?
JC: Let’s get the most vulnerable off the streets—women and children, families, the elderly. They are sitting ducks when they don’t have a door to lock at night. And that constant state of hyper-vigilance that they must always be in in order to survive, that results in trauma. That’s something we can prevent when we give these folks a door that locks so they can let their guard down and sleep. They can stop worrying that they’re going to get caught up into human trafficking, or get beat up or raped. In the morning, they can lock up their stuff and go about their business without carting everything they own around with them. And they know they have a place to go at night so they are not spending the whole day scouting around for where they will be safe that night. It’s not ideal, but if we can’t give people the ideal, that doesn’t excuse us from giving them at least the bare essentials.
CB: Why do you believe homeless women and children are undercounted in the annual Point in Time Count?
JC: If you are a woman, especially if you have children, the last thing you are doing is sitting around somewhere waiting be counted. Women are couch surfing—and I’m not talking about a spare bedroom in your parents’ house. If that’s available, it usually gets old real fast. Kids are messy and loud and wear out their welcome. Meanwhile their moms are manifesting symptoms of trauma: hopelessness, indecisiveness, low of energy. The next “couch” is a friend, and then a stranger, a pimp. The kids are in terrible situations. But it’s a case of the devil you know.
Or if they are lucky enough to have a car, it’s illegal to “habitate” in your car, so again, they have to stay out of sight. So they are not getting counted because they are hidden, but they are still homeless.
CB: What are some of the greater dangers that homeless women with children face?
JC: In their minds, the greatest danger is that they are going to lose their kids. If the traffickers don’t get them, Child Protective Services will. Imagine giving birth and leaving the hospital with a newborn and not having any place to go with that precious infant. It’s happening right here on our streets.
CB: Why don’t women and children go into shelters?
JC: There’s too few shelters for women with children. St. Vincent de Paul’s has a waiting list. Rescue Mission is not supposed to take more than 60 but they usually have more. The situation, from what I’ve been told, is awful; all these kids in one room; sick kids, babies with dirty diapers, crying. And then in the morning you have to take all of your stuff and leave, and wander around all day because there are no day centers for families, and then get back in line in the evening.
CB: Some believe the tiny houses option is a “distraction” from seeking permanent housing solutions for the home less. Why do you disagree with that?
JC: Housing-First is great! Let’s just put everyone into permanent housing! We’ve been saying this for years now. But we should be saying, First Housing! First we need the damn housing, and we don’t have it and it’s a long way down the road.
So get off your butts and start creating it. I’m sick of being told to be patient. First we’re going to get the chronically homeless housed because they are the most visible and nobody wants to look at them. Then we’re going to get the veterans housed because, well, we owe it to them. Then we’ll worry about the families. So I’m saying, a distraction from what? You can’t build permanent housing AND put these families into something more humane than where they are now while we get that housing built? Can you talk and chew gum at the same time?
CB: In terms of location, permitting and implementation, where does the tiny houses plan stand now?
JC: The city just changed their General Plan to eliminate all areas where we could locate emergency shelter without a CUP except for a few sites in the Midway area. So as it stands now, the only places we can legally build these micro-communities, with restrooms and community structures, would be on church property where helping the homeless is part of their ministry. We’re working on that.
The last thing I want to do is get these families into a shelter and have the police arrest them and impound their home. I don’t want our clients to be subjected to that trauma.
CB: Why are you such an advocate for the homeless?
JC: Because it’s how I was raised—to care about others and to express my gratitude for my good fortune by sharing it.