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Campaign Aims To Open Doors For The Homeless

Philip Doud and his girlfriend, Cathy Espong, sit in their new one-bedroom apartment. They both lost their jobs and were found living on a San Diego sidewalk during a survey of the city's homeless population last fall. The Department of Veterans Affairs helped move the couple into permanent housing as part of a campaign to end homelessness. (NPR)

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'

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.
Brian Whitworth, a longtime homeless veteran

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.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, the last of our series of stories this week on ending homelessness. Every night in San Diego, roughly 4,600 people sleep in shelters or on the streets. For years, the city has talked about doing something about it, with little success.

As NPR's Pam Fessler reports, San Diego is now joining dozens of other cities in a new effort to move tens of thousands of chronically homeless people into permanent housing.

PAM FESSLER: Let's start with a skeptic, and there are several who doubt that a new campaign to end homelessness is San Diego will succeed. That counting and interviewing the city's homeless will get them off the streets as promised.

BOB MCELROY: Why are we counting homeless people? We've counted them for the last 25 years that I've been doing this. Count them for what?

FESSLER: Bob McElroy heads the Alpha Project, a nonprofit that helps the city's homeless. He says he's seen this movie before. The ending's always the same.

MCELROY: You're not going to allow us to build the housing for them and the treatment programs and the supportive housing programs. What are we counting them again for? There's a whole bunch of people out there.

FESSLER: So now, here's what those leading the new campaign say in response - this time things are different.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL)

Unidentified Woman: Everybody take your seats, please.

FESSLER: The first difference is who's involved. Just about everyone in San Diego who has anything to do with homelessness is at the table.

RICK SCHNELL: Rick Schnell, I'm the sergeant on the San Diego Police Department. I supervise the homeless outreach team.

MATTHEW DOHERTY: Matthew Doherty with LeSar Development Consultants.

Unidentified Woman #1: (unintelligible) office of the (unintelligible).

FESSLER: The police, housing commission, hospitals, nonprofits, businesses, even the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. And they've joined 70 other cities such as Phoenix, Seattle and Nashville in a campaign to house the nation's long-term homeless. It's led by a New York group called Common Ground. The strategy is - work together, cut red tape, no more business as usual.

ROBIN MUNRO: So we're not operating in silos anymore.

FESSLER: Robin Munro is among those leading the effort. She's with the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a business group. She's driving me around a park in the heart of the city to show why even the business community is now on board. She points to a makeshift camp made out of five black umbrellas, with several shopping carts nearby.

MUNRO: You can see, there's people who live in there, on the other side too.

FESSLER: She says this park is supposed to be the gateway to the commercial district. But instead, it's a barrier, scaring off customers and retailers alike. She says it's a humanitarian issue.

MUNRO: But 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.

FESSLER: And people are sleeping all over this downtown - on corners, sidewalks, under bridges. I visited one camp site beneath the interstate where almost 100 people spend the night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

FESSLER: And many here clearly need help. One woman screams in the darkness that there are snakes crawling all over her. A longtime homeless veteran named Brian Whitworth nervously pulls me away.

BRIAN WHITWORTH: You never know what's going to happen from one second to the next. 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. It's scary.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

FESSLER: Hello?

PHILIP DOUD: Hi.

FESSLER: Hi. Would you like us to take our shoes off?

DOUD: No. Oh, no, that's OK.

FESSLER: Philip Doud is 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 serious cases first. They found the 53- year-old veteran and his girlfriend sleeping under a bridge, and offered him a $5 fast-food coupon if he'd answer some questions.

DOUD: I didn't really think anything would happen, really - it would come to anything, really.

FESSLER: Doud is soft-spoken and his hair and mustache are neatly trimmed. But he's a former drug addict who's been homeless on and off for 20 years, also in and out of jail, usually for what he calls stupid offenses, like stealing a flashlight.

DOUD: You got to have a flashlight when you're homeless, you know, to see stuff. You know, see the medicine bottles or whatever.

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

DOUD: All my medicine right there that I got to take, you know.

FESSLER: He shows me dozens of pills neatly organized in a plastic container.

DOUD: That's, you know, AM/PM. But, see, I take, like, 30 pills a day.

CLAY KING: Living on the streets is not good for your health.

FESSLER: Clay King is chief of social work at the VA in San Diego. His agency is providing housing vouchers to the campaign and services, such as health care and counseling. The idea is to make sure that people like Philip Doud stay housed and hopefully lead more productive lives.

KING: Our case managers help the veteran with all those steps. 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.

FESSLER: But he says lots of people are pitching in, which makes this campaign so promising. The county is paying for case managers; the city wants to build a permanent homeless shelter; local businesses and nonprofits funded the survey. Still, it's slow going. Only 13 of the more than 700 homeless people surveyed last fall have been permanently housed so far. Organizers say they're on track to house more than 100, but future budget cuts could hinder the plan.

CALEB RA: Hi, good morning, I was wondering if we could leave a message for a veteran?

FESSLER: Caleb Ra is with a team of VA case workers. They've stopped at a day center where many of San Diego's homeless hang out. They're trying to follow up with one of the veterans they found on the streets last fall. They don't see him but they do run into Patrick Sean Williamson, who's also on their list. Williamson is surprised to find himself suddenly surrounded by case workers.

PATRICK SEAN WILLIAMSON: So, what's it all about here?

RA: So we're pretty much trying to follow back up from the initiative back in September, where we did a survey and we're looking for a certain number of veterans from that survey.

FESSLER: Ra tells Williamson they might be able to help him. He looks like a good candidate. He can't afford a place to live. He's been homeless for three years. And he's in bad health. His legs are red and swollen.

SEAN WILLIAMSON: 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.

FESSLER: The VA workers arrange for Williamson to come to their offices the following day. They think they can get him a permanent place to live.

Organizers hope that with each success, they'll build momentum and convince the skeptics that things have indeed changed.

SEAN WILLIAMSON: Thank you.

OK: OK, and we'll see you tomorrow.

SEAN WILLIAMSON: Oh, I'm glad I finally got to talk to somebody.

FESSLER: And Williamson will be even happier a week later when he finds himself off the streets in a new apartment.

Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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