When an oak tree is felled the whole forest echoes with it; but a hundred acorns are planted silently by some unnoticed breeze.
The national press in recent weeks has heaped praise on a program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, started by its Republican mayor a year ago, that gives homeless panhandlers day jobs to help beautify the city.
To which Bob McElroy, president and CEO of San Diego’s Alpha Project, can only offer a baritone chuckle. “We’ve been doing this on steroids for over 30 years,” he said. “It’s sad that folks need to look elsewhere when the solution is under their nose.”
That last comment is a reference to local reaction to the Albuquerque program, summed up in a tweet last week from Matthew T. Hall, the San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial and opinion director: “Why wouldn’t this work in San Diego? Can the city copy this program?”
McElroy, recovering from knee-replacement surgery, was taking a few days off for a staycation at Campland on the Bay this past weekend—“just sitting here watching the birds fly over my head,” he said before adding, “staring at downtown”—but it’s clear his mind is never far from the organization he built from the ground up.
At 61, McElroy can sound like he’s ready to hang it up one minute, but then excoriate the concept of retirement the next. “What the hell would I do for a living?” he bellowed. “I mean, the biggest torture I ever had was spending seven days locked in my house with the knee replacement. I wasn’t supposed to drive for six weeks. I drove in seven days down to my office to get away from my wife’s chore list.
“It’s what I do. I love the people. That’s why I love hangin’ with them—I love crazy people.”
With nearly a million dollars in contracts with various city agencies, Alpha Project has blazed a trail of hope and renewed lives for nearly three decades. If you look up from your mobile device long enough, chances are you’ll see work crews in bright orange shirts toiling along city roadways, in the canyons and along the weed-tangled riverbeds.
Alpha Project’s Take Back the Streets program has been kicking serious city-maintenance ass since 1987, giving hundreds of homeless folks a jump-start on their self-esteem and their pocketbooks.
While Albuquerque boasts that its homeless workers receive $9 an hour and a lunch, McElroy notes that “30 years ago, we were paying folks $10 an hour—a lot of money back then—and now we’re between $12 and $15 an hour.” Plus, Alpha Project provides housing, transportation, drug treatment and a savings account for its workers.
“There’s a lot more accountability on it than just having some people sweep the sidewalks, get the paycheck and expect them to do something good with it,” he added.
McElroy is focused on longterm outcomes. “Is there anybody who’s gone on to start their own businesses or get full-time employment, or they’re no longer homeless?” he wondered.
Because that’s certainly the case with Alpha Project, which McElroy likes to mention—frequently—is really an amalgam of 14 different programs in seven cities from Oakland to Chula Vista.
Eddie Castellon is a perfect example of Alpha Project’s success. The Oceanside native had given up on life after a divorce separated him from his family. “I didn’t care about anything,” he said. “So I just turned to drugs. I went on a binge for about 25 years.”
Homeless and saddled with a lengthy criminal record of mostly “petty things,” Castellon said his probation officer gave him a choice: Seek treatment or go to jail. He took the former at Alpha Project’s Casa Raphael in Vista, where counseling, watching other people in similar situations improve, and a job-training program helped him turn the corner.
Today at 59, he’s now supervising an Alpha Project work crew at the Miramar Landfill and is in line for full-time employment with the city of San Diego. “This is how I felt when I was married,” he said. “I lost track of years until I went to Casa Raphael. That opened my eyes. I’ve regained the trust of my family. My brothers talk to me again. My son visits me. All of that has helped me get stronger and continue to do the right thing. I’m proud of myself. I’ve come a long way.”
This is what drives McElroy every day, knee pain or no. Not the attention, although even he had to express a “come on, man” or two when told that Albuquerque was drawing national media attention from the likes of the Washington Post and the New York Times with headlines noting what a “simple idea” it was to find work for the homeless.
He starts waxing nostalgic recalling the days 25 years ago when he and then-Councilmember Juan Vargas (now a member of Congress) started Take Back the Streets with a bang, knocking down 43 crack houses. “All of the people who used to do crack in those houses, we put them to work tearing those things down and kicked ass and took names,” McElroy recalled.
And while McElroy is prone to colorful language to express his passion, he won’t apologize for being not much of a marketer. “We’ve placed more people in permanent housing than anybody. I’ve put more homeless people and convicts and drug addicts and gang members to work than anybody in the history of California,” he said without equivocation. “So I’m not very good at messaging. I don’t have a newsletter. We don’t do that shit. We just do our stuff.”
He said he sees young people with master’s degrees in business management parking cars downtown because that’s the available job. In that environment, “a guy who’s been a multi-generational welfare recipient or drug dealer or homeless person with a rap sheet instead of a résumé” can’t compete.
“That’s why people start with us.” So get back to us, Albuquerque, in about 30 years.