- Photo by Kelly Davis
A couple of months ago, Mike Stephenson's pal Dave, on a whim, said the pair should take a road trip from Phoenix to San Diego. Dave parked the car Downtown, the two got separated and Stephenson got lost. He hasn't seen Dave, or Dave's car, since.
"I'm not mad or anything like that," he says. "It's not like I had a whole lot to do in Phoenix. It's just that I miss the weather."
And that's why Stephenson's sitting in Kelly Knight's office on a Wednesday morning.
A 55-year-old Army vet with a Chicago brogue, Stephenson's been homeless for the last couple of years. He hopes Knight can help him get back to Phoenix. There, at least, he has friends who look out for him, letting him crash on a sofa, take a shower and store his stuff. There's one person in particular, a woman named Dorothy Howe, whom Stephenson was closest to. If Knight can get in touch with her, and Howe can guarantee she'll help Stephenson get back on his feet, then he can earn a bus ticket through Work Your Way Home, a program Knight oversees in her role as homeless outreach coordinator for the Downtown San Diego Partnership's Clean & Safe program.
Since February 2012, 117 people have been reconnected with friends or family through the program. Knight emphasizes it's not a means to unload San Diego's homeless on other cities; before anyone's granted a ticket—after working a shift with the Clean & Safe maintenance crew—Knight makes sure she's sending the person to a place where they'll have support from people who care about them.
Add those 117 people to the roughly 250 folks who've been housed in the last two years via the Downtown-focused Campaign to End Homelessness, and the United Way's Project 25, and you'd expect to see a difference, even a slight one, in the city center's street population. Knight's been doing outreach in San Diego for nearly a decade, first with the Alpha Project before joining Clean & Safe a little more than a year ago.
"There's more people," she says.
Knight's one of only a few folks doing targeted street outreach—putting names and stories to faces and using that information to try to link people to shelter. Everywhere she goes, she carries a stack of business cards. Her standard line is something like this: "My name's Kelly. I'm a homeless outreach coordinator. I'm pretty good at finding resources for people. I wanted to give you my card and let you know I'm available if you need me."
Sometimes she's successful. More often than not, she's telling people what they already know—that the need for shelter far outweighs available beds. For every Eileen—a woman with a chronic lung disorder who dropped by Knight's office last week on her way to claim a bed at Connections Housing—there's Jennifer and Rebecca, two women Knight found in Children's Park earlier that morning.
With Jennifer were two little girls, ages 2 and 3, while Rebecca kept an eye on her 2-month-old daughter who was sleeping in a stroller. Rebecca's husband is disabled and both Jennifer and her husband are HIV-positive. The families moved to San Diego after falling on hard times in Virginia. They sleep in an East Village shelter at night and, at 6 a.m.—the facility requires that they leave during the day—walk roughly 20 blocks to the park where there's shade and benches and the girls can run up and down the grassy hills.
Knight asks if anyone's told them about Cortez Hill, a converted motel that houses families for up to 120 days. Nope, they tell her. Knight warns them that the wait could be a few months.
"But I always tell everyone, 'Get on every single list, no matter what,'" Knight says. "Get on the list; time passes."
Housing for homeless families is hard to come by. Just to see what waiting lists were like, Knight put in an application at two low-income projects, both located Downtown. At one place, she waited 18 months before she got in for an interview—"just the beginning of the process," she says. At a second location, she's been on the waiting list for three years without a callback.
Situations like this highlight a current debate in homeless services: What's the best way to allocate scarce resources? The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has made it a goal to end chronic homelessness by 2015, with a particular focus on veterans, by placing people into what's known as permanent-supportive housing—housing that's coupled with services like counseling, job training and drug and alcohol treatment. Programs like the United Way's Project 25, which placed 35 so-called "frequent users" of emergency, criminal-justice and social services into supportive housing, have demonstrated that such a strategy saves money. But is that savings coming at an expense?
"I understand that [HUD's] saying we want to have the most effective use of the federal dollar," says Pat Leslie, a professor of social work at Point Loma Nazarene University, who also sits on the Regional Continuum of Care Council, which helps plan how federal homeless assistance grants will be spent, "but at the same time, the local resources have to then address families and others who are homeless because, if not, we're going to create a new generation of street people, or we're going to end up using other expensive systems like foster care or [child protective services] to intervene."
San Diego County has a homeless population of 8,879 people, according to a street count conducted earlier this year by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless (RTFH). Of that number, a little more than half are unsheltered. A more in-depth assessment from 2012 showed that roughly one-quarter of the total homeless population were families.
But even among the chronically homeless, finding a bed is a challenge. Knight's been trying to help Chantal, a 26-year-old Navy vet with short dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses, for almost a year. Like Jennifer and Rebecca, Chantal and her husband, who suffers from mental illness, also spend their days in Children's Park.
"I'm hearing rumblings about housing for veterans," Knight tells Chantal. "You guys are chronic, and you're a veteran, so you fit all the criteria."
And if that doesn't work, Knight adds, "I have lots of ideas. We'll ask lots of questions of anybody we talk to and make sure we don't go down the wrong road. You guys fit the criteria that everybody's really focusing on."
What's perhaps most frustrating for Knight is that there's no central database she can turn to if she finds someone who's willing to accept help. She might hear about beds or services at a community meeting, or via a listserv, but then she's got to find the person, help them through an application process that often involves documents they don't have on-hand—ID, Social Security card, military discharge paperwork—and hope the bed's still there.
"I can't go online and say I need a bed for a veteran over 50 who gets X amount of dollars per month. I can't type in those filters and find out where there's a bed for that [person]. I can't look at a list that says, 'We have three family openings' here, or 'We have this' there. There's no list like that."
Michael McConnell, vice president of the RTFH board of directors, envisions a system redesign, from reassessing the county's inventory of shelter beds are used to how providers like Knight can find out immediately if a bed becomes available.
"That's not rocket science," he says. "We should know what's going on in our system. That's only 6,500 beds that we're trying to keep track of... There should be something we should be able to put in place to have a real-time understanding" of where beds are available.
It's something the RCCC is working on, he says, but relying solely on federal dollars means change might not happen fast enough.
"Private funders need to come together and start coordinating their activities toward best practices," he says.
A more robust way to monitor beds and track outcomes could also help providers determine whether they're making the best use of limited resources, starting at the emergency-shelter level, which should be used as an entry point but currently isn't.
"We actually have people living in our shelters," McConnell says. "Some people will leave a program or leave their [residential hotel] to live in the winter tent just to save money... You have to save your resources for the people who are the best fit for them and move people through as quickly as possible."
But first you have to connect with them. Walking back to her office, Knight spots a neatly dressed woman standing near a wall with a knapsack at her feet; she's having a quiet conversation with no one in particular.
Knight asks her name. It's Suzanne.
"Hi, my name's Kelly. I'm a homeless outreach coordinator. Can I give you my card?"
Suzanne smiles and takes the card, but she declines assistance.
"So, let's just say hi every time we see each other," Knight says. Suzanne agrees.
"I always try to leave every exchange with something positive," Knight says later. "So, next time I see her, I'm going to be, like, 'Hi. Remember we said we'd say hi to each other?' Maybe in a month she'll talk to me; maybe in a year she'll talk to me.
"With the people you can't do that with, you've got to let them go," she adds. "I have some people who are beyond my scope; I'm not able to connect with them... And it's sad, but I have to be able to just let that go and keep moving forward to the next person that I might be able to help."