When Aaron McBride moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Kearny Mesa two months ago, what mattered most was that it had a kitchen.
“I wanted a place where I could cook,” he says. He makes everything from scratch, just like his grandmother taught him: chicken and dumplings, red beans and rice, Granny Smith apple pies. McBride gently moves his hand through the air as if he's smoothing down the crust's top layer.
He promises that once he's released from jail, he'll cook a reporter dinner.
McBride was arrested on May 10 and booked on domestic-violence charges. He's being held on $50,000 bail.
McBride says he's innocent. He says he was helping out a friend, a woman, by giving her a place to stay. He says that when he told her it was time for her to leave, she became irate, told him she was going to get him kicked out of his apartment and then called the police.
“I caught myself trying to look out for someone,” he says.
“And this is how she thanks me.”
Two months ago, McBride was enrolled in Project 25, a collaborative program between city and county agencies, the United Way of San Diego County and St. Vincent de Paul. Project 25 seeks to place at least 25 so-called “frequent users”— homeless individuals who repeatedly end up in jail, emergency rooms and hospitals—into housing. The hope is that once someone who was formerly homeless has a roof over his head and the assistance of a case manager, he'll be better able to address the problems that landed him on the street in the first place, be they mental illness, addiction or chronic health issues. So far, 21 people are in housing with another six in the process of being housed, says Brian Maienschein, who heads up Project 25 for the United Way.
McBride, the second person housed under Project 25, was No. 21 on the list in terms of cost. Diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, an incurable disease of the nervous system that causes tumors to grow on nerve tissues and the surface of the skin, McBride was in and out of the hospital before he was enrolled in Project 25; in 2010 alone, Maienschein says, McBride's hospital stays, sometimes more than a week at a time, cost taxpayers roughly $200,000.
“My nervous system just started shutting down,” McBride says of the disease that rendered him unable to maintain a steady job. Because of that, the self-described “jack of all trades” became homeless five years ago.
For the brief two months he was in his apartment, McBride's health markedly improved. Diet, he says, plays a huge role in keeping his disease under control. “I can cook exactly what I can have,” he says of having his own place. And there are the bigger-picture issues. He met with his caseworker a couple times a week and envisioned getting to a place where he might be able to hold some sort of a job.
“For once in my life, I found myself doing right,” he says.
In late April, McBride was the public face of Project 25. He agreed to appear at a press conference, where he talked about his experience in the program and, despite needing a walker to get around, took a 10News reporter on a tour of the part of East Village where he used to bed down at night.
Maienschein says his interactions with McBride were brief, but “he seemed serious about changing his life and he was very, very grateful for the opportunity that Project 25 was giving him.”As recounted by San Diego Police Department spokesperson Det. Gary Hassen, a woman whom Hassen described as McBride's girlfriend—it's SDPD policy not to release the names of domestic-violence victims—called 911 at around 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 10. When police arrived, she told them that during a verbal argument, McBride punched her in the face, chest and head and strangled her until she lost consciousness. (Court records show that his accuser has not been a stranger to the criminal-justice system, having been a party in multiple criminal and civil cases.)
McBride's case was originally assigned to Deputy Public Defender Kate Coyne, but Coyne said Monday that the case was being transferred over to the alternate public defender's office, which handles cases for which the public defender has a conflict of interest; she couldn't comment beyond that. An alternate public defender hadn't been assigned to McBride by press time.
May 10 wasn't the first time McBride was arrested. In 2003, he pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon in Maricopa County, Ariz., and was given two years' probation. And, in June 2007, he was arrested in El Cajon and pleaded guilty to one count of battery, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to 80 hours of community service with the Alpha Project, which he completed in December 2007 by working at the Neil Good Day Center, which provides services for homeless folks.
Of the 2007 arrest, he says only that he was “just trying to survive,” adding, “that doesn't make it right.”
Maienschein says that Project 25 runs background checks on participants and that McBride passed. To qualify for federal housing vouchers, a person can't be a registered sex offender or have recent convictions for drugs or violent crime.
Last August, around the time Maienschein announced the launch of Project 25, The Los Angeles Times produced a series of stories on L.A. County's Project 50 which, similar to here, sought to house at least 50 chronically homeless people. While the stories showed the program's successes—roughly 80 percent of participants had remained off the street—they also noted folks who'd been arrested while enrolled in the program, left their apartment to return to the street or continued using drugs and alcohol.
Joel John Roberts, CEO of L.A.-based People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), whose organization has been selected to operate San Diego's first one-stop homeless-services and supportive-housing facility, scheduled to open late next year, says working with folks who are historically difficult to reach requires patience.
“When you're working with people who are living on the streets or formerly living on the streets, there's lots of stuff that's happening,” Roberts says.
“You don't have to be homeless or really low on the socioeconomic ladder to make mistakes.” he adds. “The reality is that Project 25 is needed, and it's been proven around the country that housing the most vulnerable people is what reduces homelessness on the streets.”
Maienschein says McBride's continued participation in Project 25 depends, as would be expected, on the outcome of the case. He says that, so far, no other participants have left their housing for any reason.
“With this group of people, we definitely anticipated there would be steps back, and there was a good possibility of somebody getting arrested,” he says.
McBride, meanwhile, is confident he'll soon be back in his apartment. He says that in jail, he's been talking up Project 25 to homeless inmates.
“Even though I'm in here, I know there's a better tomorrow,” he says. “This is just a little pebble in the road.”
Disclosure: Our editor has a personal relationship with someone who works on a pro-bono basis with Project 25. However, that played no part in this story. CityBeat learned of Aaron McBride's arrest through a routine check of arrest records.