A woman named Barbara sits near the corner of Imperial Avenue and 17th Street in East Village, wearing a black bandana, matted pink slippers and a gray Sean John sweat suit. She's easily distracted-one minute she'll be talking to you and the next she's talking past you, to no one in particular.
Kelly (who asked that her last name not be used) and Alisa Holstrom, caseworkers with the Alpha Project, a homelessness-services agency, have gotten to know Barbara as much as Barbara's allowed them to-they know she sometimes stays with her daughter, whose own housing situation is shaky. An alcoholic, Barbara has a difficult time staying in one place for more than a few days. This past winter, she showed up to Alpha Project's temporary shelter, stayed for a while, disappeared, then came back.
"Sometimes she's sober and lucid; sometimes she's in a worse state than today," Kelly says. "Even if she cusses us out, we still stop to say hi."
"She's not someone you can just take and do something for," she adds.
It had been a few weeks since Kelly and Holstrom last saw Barbara. When they spot her leaning up against a chain-link fence on Imperial, Kelly brings the Alpha Project's lumbering, industrial-sized van to a stop. Barbara recognizes them immediately. They'll spend maybe 10 minutes with her, but they'll also talk to Molly and Ed and a young girl who's newly homeless and three months' pregnant. After East Village, they'll head over to the harbor area. Before 10:30 a.m., they will have checked in with more than a dozen people, jotting down notes on legal pads, making referrals and handing out business cards with contact information and a list of the services Alpha Project provides. When they have them, they'll give out hygiene kits, clean socks, sleeping bags and bottles of Gatorade. Mostly, though, it's about establishing relationships and building trust. At the harbor, for instance, they meet Paul, a small, quiet man in his 50s with a baseball cap and glasses. They ask him if he needs anything ("a new cart and a job," he says), but the majority of their conversation is about the best places to watch fireworks on July 4. As they leave, Paul thanks them.
"Don't tell me Thank you' until I get you something," Holstrom says.
"You've already helped me," Paul tells her. "Sometimes you say hello to the normal people and you get the cold shoulder."
It's estimated there are at least 1,400 people (probably closer to 2,000 or more) in San Diego County who are chronically homeless, meaning they've been living on the street for more than a year and suffer from mental illness and/or drug or alcohol addiction. Research has shown that the best way to get chronically homeless people off the street is through what's known as permanent supportive housing: supervised apartment-style units where a person can live independently but also have easy access to services like counseling, substance-abuse treatment, job-placement assistance and transportation assistance. It's a model that's been proven to save considerable taxpayer dollars. A 2002 study found that it costs roughly $900 a month-building costs included-to keep someone in permanent supportive housing, while a chronically homeless person living on the street can run up a tab of tens of thousands of dollars in law-enforcement and emergency-room costs
But as much as they'd like to get Barbara into supportive housing, neither Kelly nor Holstrom can force her.
"Do you want to go inside?" Holstrom asks Barbara during their visit. Barbara declines; today, she just wants a blanket.
But, each time they see her, they'll ask. Two weeks ago, a guy named Meredith finally answered yes to that question. Within an hour and a half, they found him a room at the Metro Hotel, the city-owned supportive-housing complex that's operated by the Alpha Project.
"They've got to have that moment of clarity," said Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy. "These are people who've been pushed around their whole lives. They have this Don't tell me what to do' mentality."
Alpha Project has a team of five caseworkers who take turns taking the van out each morning, Monday through Friday. On this particular day, Kelly and Holstrom are joined by Travis Larson, the Metro Hotel's newly hired program manager. They focus mainly on East Village, the harbor area and Hillcrest, but they'll go wherever they're needed.
This sort of street-level outreach was envisioned as a necessary component of San Diego County's Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, or PTECH, a region-wide initiative that, at one point, had the ambitious goal of eradicating chronic homelessness in the county before the end of the next decade. In a March 2005 story in CityBeat, Sharon Johnson, the former homelessness-services director for the city of San Diego, said that without caseworkers hitting the streets and building relationships, getting people to enter supportive housing voluntarily would be a challenge. A lot of those folks, she said, had tried and failed programs in the past.
But funding for those caseworkers wasn't available until last month. So far, PTECH, which is being administered by United Way of San Diego County, has been slow to get going, earning a reputation among homelessness-services providers as a "toothless tiger," said Herb Johnson, CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission. It's been three years since the city of San Diego, where the majority of the county's homeless population resides, gave the United Way the thumbs up to implement PTECH. The plan's been endorsed by all local City Councils except for Santee's, which argued that its city contained no homeless people, and the county Board of Supervisors, which has said an endorsement would be merely a symbolic gesture. "We try to stay out of symbolic gestures," Supervisor Ron Roberts told CityBeat in January.
"Funding wasn't available until late 2007," said United Way spokesperson Sue Greenberg in an e-mail. She added that PTECH "called for significant volunteer involvement."
"Volunteer involvement of this magnitude can lengthen decision-making quite a bit," she said. "We understood that these volunteers had full-time jobs and busy lives; as a result, the process took longer."
In January, the United Way hired former San Diego City Councilmember Brian Maienschein to head up PTECH's implementation. It was a controversial hire given Maienschein's lack of a track record on advocating for poor people.
But, last month, the United Way announced it was making more than $800,000 available under the PTECH umbrella, including $332,200 for Alpha Project's street outreach team and to staff the Metro Hotel, where Larson will oversee a small team of case managers. The Metro had been one of 46 housing facilities in California that benefited from the state-funded Supportive Housing Initiative Act (SHIA). Funding started in 2000 and was supposed to run through 2009. But although a 2003 evaluation showed that 86 percent of people living in SHIA-funded housing managed to remain housed, SHIA was cut from the state budget in 2005 and the Metro lost its 10-person case-management staff.
Larson said that within the next couple of weeks, they hope to be able to move roughly 75 people into the Metro. Some of those folks might come from the San Diego Rescue Mission, which received $261,000 from the United Way to pay for 32 recuperative-care beds for chronically homeless people who've been discharged from the hospital but need to be in a sterile environment until they fully recover. It will be the first such program in San Diego, said Johnson, the Rescue Mission CEO.