Photo by David Troyan Photography Studios
Veteran civic leader Laurie Black left a steaming comment under a recent online article about a homelessness initiative announced by the county of San Diego. Public rebukes of politicians by voices of note are rare in the whispered world of homeless services, even in the trolling grounds. When I contacted Black she suggested we meet for a “walkie talkie.” That is, a walk through Balboa Park—a city crown jewel itself rife with homeless individuals—during which we would talk about the subject of her ire.
It’s a personal issue for Black. Her brother was a paranoid schizophrenic who was homeless for stretches of time. In 1988 the voices in Brian Black’s head told him to jump off the Coronado Bridge. He did, and survived a leap from mid-span. Five years later he also lived after being shot seven times during a police-assisted suicide attempt. Brian Black later died in car accident.
Laurie Black isn’t in the news as much as the days when she was chief of staff to Congresswoman Lynn Schenk. Black was also commissioner on the San Diego Port District, served as board director on the Centre City Development Corp. and was president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership. She was married to the late Robert Lawrence, a prominent San Diego developer who was the son of M. Larry Lawrence, long-time owner of the Hotel del Coronado.
You might think homelessness doesn’t cast a shadow over such families. But it can and it does.
Black meets me at the corner of Sixth and Laurel. Wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, large sunglasses and a black backpack, she walks with force and purpose. We march half a block to meet her friend Lee. He’s a middle-aged homeless man who’s been living in Balboa Park for three years. Lee is a graying Southern gentleman who does the crossword puzzle most mornings. He’s well spoken, and acknowledges being a skilled mechanic. After a civil chat about the politics of homelessness, Black and I stride off. She mentions she gave Lee the leather jacket he’s wearing. The $600 designer coat from Beverly Hills belonged to her grandfather.
During her time as a public servant, Black was a vocal proponent of housing and services for the homeless. In 2000, as president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership she served on an Ad Hoc Committee of dozens of civic leaders who came together to essentially do what today is called “housing-first” for the homeless. They successfully focused on the severely mentally ill, putting them in apartments and offering round-the-clock medical and psychological services.
Yes, that sounds familiar, even though today politicians treat the housing-first approach as if it just washed up on shore.
“In 2000 we got $10.3 million in money for the county from the state,” says Black, as our eastbound footsteps echo over the Cabrillo Bridge. “It was AB 2034 grant money. The money was spread out over three years. For two and a half years it was going great. It was working. We had housed 320 people.”
In 2003 Black left the DSDP. Then she heard discouraging news—the county was going to keep the third installment of AB 2034 money. Black called County Supervisor Ron Roberts’ office but couldn’t get an answer on where the money was going.
“I told them, ‘You have blown up this program,’” Black says, her voice rising. “Our program was working and they broke it. And that was the end of the county’s commitment to homelessness. They never showed up, again. They took their marbles and said they were going to play their own game. They isolated themselves. They will say they didn’t but that’s not true.”
At the time, the program director of AB 2034/ REACH for the county was Adrienne Berlin. Contacted later by telephone, she agrees with Black’s assessment. “Yes,” Berlin says,” after that there was nothing new.” A spokesman for Supervisor Greg Cox researched the situation and drew a different conclusion. “The county never defunded the REACH program,” says Cox’s director of communications, Luis Monteagudo. He says when the grant finished the county funded the program for three more years, and then it morphed into another program.
In early February of this year, the county, led by supervisors Cox and Roberts, unveiled the Project One For All initiative. It was announced days before the annual Point-In-Time regional homeless count. The initiative will focus on wrap-around services to homeless individuals with severe mental illnesses. Implementation is set to begin in May.
This was the announcement that caught Black’s attention. “Uh, wait,” she says, “you did this already! You are not aware you were doing this in the year 2000 and ’01 and ’02? You had the money from the state! I saw this announced and it got me riled.”
Monteagudo notes a major difference between past county programs and this one: It will be countywide rather than focus on downtown.
Half an hour into the walkie talkie Black and I pause to sit on a stone bench near the Mingei International Museum. Black delivers one last salvo at the Board of Supervisors. “They have not embraced their responsibility to the people who can’t help themselves in this county,” she says. They have not become a part of the greater collaborative. They think they have, though, and that’s the problem.”
A man in a red t-shirt who’s cleaning a water fountain hears us discussing homelessness. He politely asks if he can comment. Stephen says he’s a homeless veteran. He spent 16 years as a Marine. Black asks, “Would you take skills classes at a local college if they were available?” Yes, says Stephen, but says it would be better if those were offered by the armed services before people got out. Then Stephen apologizes for interrupting and says he’s got to get back to work.
Off and walking again, I ask for Black’s opinion of San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s city-driven homelessness initiative, called Housing Our Heroes. The mayor has pledged to get 1,000 veterans off the street by the end of 2016.
“If it’s a priority, it’ll get done,” she says. “If Kevin makes this a priority and doesn’t worry about any backlash in running for other office, and is authentic in his belief system about the possibility of change— real change—then it’ll happen.”
Arriving back at Sixth and Laurel, Black and I are wrapping things up. That’s when a lean, scraggly bearded man wearing baggy camouflage pants approaches and asks for money. We tell him, sorry, no. He saunters away and flops down on the grass.
Black takes off her glasses and wipes at her eyes. “It’s like they’re throwaway people,” she says, shaking her head. “And it’s all the worse if that man right there served in Afghanistan…” Her voice trails off for the first time today.
Here’s where an overarching realization sets in: A morning walk in Balboa Park can be physically and intellectually stimulating. But running passionately in circles for decades is emotionally exhausting.