Tue March 8, 2011
Social Entrepreneurs: Taking On World Problems

Campaign Aims To Open Doors For The Homeless

San Diego, known for its nice weather, attracts even the homeless. About 4,600 people live on city streets or in shelters, and the number has been growing.

Now, the city has joined more than 70 other cities — such as Phoenix, Tucson and Nashville — in a national campaign to get 100,000 chronically homeless people into permanent housing. It was started by the New York City group Common Ground. Those leading the effort think it could be the first step toward drastically reducing homelessness in the U.S.

There are some who doubt that counting and interviewing San Diego's homeless will get them off the streets, and that this campaign will succeed.

"Why are we counting homeless people? We've counted them for the last 25 years that I've been doing this," says Bob McElroy, who heads the Alpha Project, which runs the city's temporary winter shelter for the homeless. Every year, there's a huge debate over whether and where it should open.

'We're Not Operating In Silos Anymore'

But those leading the new campaign say many things are different this time.

The first difference is who's involved. Just about everyone in San Diego who has anything to do with homelessness is at the table — the police, the housing commission, area hospitals, lawmakers, nonprofits, businesses, even the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"We're not operating in silos anymore," says Robin Munro, who is helping to lead the effort. She's with the Downtown San Diego Partnership, which works to improve the city's central business district. Munro drives around Horton Plaza Park, in the heart of San Diego, to show why even the business community is now on board with housing the homeless.

"You can see, there's people who live in there, on the other side too," she says, as she points to a makeshift camp made out of five black umbrellas, with several shopping carts nearby.

Munro says this park is supposed to be the gateway to the commercial district. But instead it's become a barrier, scaring off customers and retailers alike. She says housing the homeless is a humanitarian issue, but adds, "It's also an economic issue. Your business is not going to do as well if people have to crawl over somebody sleeping in your doorstep."

And people are sleeping all over downtown, on corners, sidewalks, under bridges. Almost 100 people spend the night beneath the interstate highway, and many of them clearly need help. A longtime homeless veteran named Brian Whitworth says it's scary living there, as he walks away from a woman who screams that there are snakes crawling all over her body — although there are none.

"You never know what's going to happen one second to the next," Whitworth says. "Imagine how can you try and sleep at night when you got people walking around. They're going to try and threaten your life at every second of your life."

A Vicious Cycle

The situation is dire. But those running the new campaign say it'll cost more if they do nothing. They estimate that it costs about $25,000 a year to house a chronically homeless person, even with services like medical care. But it can be four or five times that amount if someone stays on the streets, repeatedly using things like the hospital emergency room.

Philip Doud is a good example. He's among the first to be housed under the campaign. Volunteers went out last fall to interview the city's homeless and create profiles so they could house the most vulnerable people first. They found the 53-year-old veteran and his girlfriend sleeping on a sidewalk, and offered him a $5 fast-food coupon if he'd answer some questions.

"I didn't really think ... it would come to anything," says Doud, who sits in his new one-bedroom apartment.

Doud is a former drug addict who's been homeless on and off for 20 years. He's also been in and out of jail — usually for what he calls "stupid" offenses, such as stealing a flashlight.

"You've got to have a flashlight when you're homeless," Doud says. "To see stuff, see the medicine bottles, whatever."

Doud says it's hard to take medication when you're on the streets. But it's a vicious cycle. He suffers from anxiety, depression and high blood pressure. If he doesn't take his medicine, he gets stressed, even violent, ending up in the emergency room or back in jail.

In an apartment, Doud can keep the 30 pills he takes each day neatly organized. He says now he's a law-abiding citizen, who's trying to get his life back on track.

"We view this really as a health care issue in [the] VA," says Clay King, chief of social work at the VA in San Diego. His agency is providing 75 housing vouchers to the campaign and services, such as health care and counseling, for those who are housed. The idea is to make sure that people like Doud stay housed and, it's hoped, go on to lead productive lives.

"Our case managers help the veterans with all those steps," King says. "We go to used furniture stores to get furniture for the veteran when he finds the apartment or she finds the apartment. And we help the veteran move in."

King says this campaign is so promising because many groups are pitching in. The county is paying for case managers; the city is planning to build a permanent homeless shelter; local businesses and nonprofits funded last fall's survey; and a police outreach team is helping to track down homeless people interviewed last fall, who are now difficult to find.

A Success

Still, it's slow going. Only 13 of the more than 700 homeless people surveyed last fall have been permanently housed so far, although organizers say they're on track to house more than 100.

To help do that, a team of VA case managers stops at a day center where many of San Diego's homeless hang out. They find one of the homeless men interviewed last fall, Patrick Sean Williamson.

VA case manager Caleb Ra tells Williamson they might be able to help him. He seems to be a good candidate. Williamson can't afford a place to live and has been homeless for three years. He's also in ill health. His legs are red and swollen.

"My diabetes is what caused me to have a problem getting a job and now it's gotten to the point where I've been out of work so long I don't think I can get a job around here," Williamson explains.

The VA workers arrange for Williamson to come to their offices the following day. A week later, they get him off the streets and into permanent housing.

Organizers of the campaign hope with each success like this, they can build momentum and get the resources they need to continue housing the city's chronically homeless. And they hope, eventually, to convince skeptics that things have changed. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.