An upsurge in crime. Masses of unwashed loiterers. Trash, urine and feces littering the sidewalks.
Two years ago, more than a few Bankers Hill residents believed those were the things that might overwhelm their neighborhood should the San Diego Rescue Mission be allowed to move its East Village social-services program to a vacant medical building at 120 Elm St. The uptown area was already dealing with a minor homeless problem, the result of its proximity to downtown and Balboa Park. The Christian nonprofit, one of several that offered a daily free meal in East Village, would surely be a magnet for transients, some figured.
Despite securing a city permit in November 2002—with the contingent that the meal service be phased in over time—the Rescue Mission faced a lawsuit, brought by tenants of neighboring office buildings and a parents' group from a nearby school, threatening to halt the move. It took nearly a year to settle that legal challenge—Dec. 9 marks the one-year anniversary of an 11th-hour deal brokered by District 2 City Councilmember Michael Zucchet between the Rescue Mission and its new neighbors. Had the lawsuit been dragged out longer, the Rescue Mission would have found itself homeless, having already sold its four East Village buildings. Part of the settlement was that the Rescue Mission could serve free meals only three times a year—Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.
And how have things progressed in the year since the settlement? Largely, it seems, there are no complaints.
Joel Bryden, who heads the San Diego Police Department's Central Division, said that since the Rescue Mission's move, crime within a quarter-mile radius of the First Avenue and Elm Street building has seen a slight decrease. “We've had very few complaints, if any, about the Rescue Mission,” Bryden said. “They've gone out of their way to be good neighbors and good partners in that neighborhood.”
Dave Gardner, who chairs the Uptown Planners, the area's liaison between the city and the community, said collaboration between the Rescue Mission and the neighborhood helped mitigate any negative impact the move might have caused. “In my opinion, the level of communication between [the Rescue Mission] and the neighbors was instrumental,” he told CityBeat. “Bankers Hill is a safer and cleaner place because of the Rescue Mission.”
A report from the Rescue Mission's Neighborhood Advisory Committee—comprising some of the folks who opposed the move—will be presented at a meeting on Dec. 9 and is expected to be positive, said Rescue Mission CEO Jim Jackson.
“This is exactly what you want,” said Jackson, “you want a Rescue Mission to move into your neighborhood.” He says this with a hint of irony. The former college professor, who runs an organization that last year served nearly 300,000 meals to hungry people, said he never doubted things would work out well for both parties. What his organization is doing—being good neighbors—is what they would have done regardless of the lawsuit.
Before the move, “we were proactively thinking about how to be good neighbors; it wasn't a reaction to the lawsuit,” said Keith Hammond, the Rescue Mission's spokesperson.
By now, folks who make the trek from East Village or Balboa Park to claim one of the Rescue Mission's 60 nightly emergency-shelter beds know that if they show up early and loiter at the building's side gate, they'll be denied a bed.
“We've got domestic-violence victims here and they've got to feel safe,” Jackson said, referring to the building's stringent security rules. “Over in East Village, we kept our place neat and clean-it's part of leading by example. If you want people to rejoin society and to respect other people‘s property, we've got to model that.”
In the end, the Rescue Mission had to pick up the tab for the other side's legal expenses, which came to roughly $180,000, said Jackson, not to mention covering their own legal costs. The Rescue Mission also picks up the tab, $70,000 annually, for a private security firm to patrol the area.
From the outside, it's impossible to tell that the Elm Street building houses more than 200 formerly homeless men, women and children. If anything, it's impossible to distinguish the building's use from the other office and residential complexes surrounding it. The sidewalks around the building are new, and the lawn and planters edging the walkways, planted last spring, are carefully maintained. Two security guards wait behind a glass window for anyone who walks through the building's main entrance.
Inside, the men's portion of the building is carefully separated from the women and kids by key-pass elevators and security doors. Hammond leads a reporter to a window that looks out across Interstate 5 and onto a portion of the playground at Washington Elementary School, the same school where some parents felt threatened by the Rescue Mission's move. Now, seven kids who live with their mothers at the Rescue Mission attend classes there. A Rescue Mission van drives the children to and from the campus each day, and since the school requires uniforms, the kids have no trouble blending in. A spokesperson with the San Diego Unified School District said he's not aware of any complaints from Washington Elementary about the Rescue Mission.
The distance from the gritty homeless ghettos in East Village also seems to have drawn a new type of client to the Rescue Mission's men's recovery program. The one-year program, which has roughly 100 participants at any give time, now has three clients younger than 23.
Eddy Mahon, 22, was, for awhile, the youngest in the program when he came to San Diego from Sacramento eight months ago on a Greyhound bus, hoping to escape two years of homelessness and a six-year methamphetamine addiction. He and a friend got off the bus at the Broadway terminal and hopped on a local bus that took them to the Rescue Mission's door. There they were met by Rescue Mission intake coordinator Mike Castaneda. Mahon, who stands 6 feet tall, was down to 120 pounds at that point, he said. When he arrived at the Rescue Mission, he slept for a week solid. “Can't remember much from that week,” he admitted.
Hammond said he remembers the shy and defensive Mahon who first joined the program. Eight months later, Mahon's morphed into an outgoing, charming guy who's just a few weeks short of completing a certificate program in culinary arts through a tuition-free City College vocational program. In January, he'll begin studies in marine biology.
He said the 60-day lockdown that the program requires of recovering drug addicts kept him out of trouble and allowed him to focus on getting better. It's easy to find drugs in San Diego, he said, but he's learned to ignore offers. “The temptation's still there,” he said, “but you've got to learn to say no, otherwise you're not going to go anywhere.” Mahon says he's developed a philosophy that he passes on to the homeless teens he counsels at the SOS Day Center at Horizon Church on Fir Street, just across from Balboa Park. “I was talking to one of the kids about going to the [Rescue] Mission and I told him, ‘Look, how many years did you put into getting yourself where you are? What is one year compared to all those years?'”
In his case, it took six years to push himself to the edge. “Someone like me shouldn't be alive,” he said.
In less than a year, he's made amends with his family, set his career path and has the resources to help others who're in the same place he was last year.
The Rescue Mission won't take anyone younger than 18, but Mahon said he was able to talk one homeless 18-year-old into stopping by Monday morning to check out the program. Mahon said he wishes he could be there, but he's got a bus to catch that morning-classes start at 8:30 a.m.