By Deacon Jim Vargas, Miles McPherson, Elaine Therrien and Kris Michell
When you see someone struggling with homelessness, the impulse to help is undeniable. In that moment, when you see a fellow human being sleeping on the street, you want to do something — anything — to alleviate his or her pain. It is from these impulses that many groups and individuals come Downtown to provide meals and other items, seeking to aid the homeless in our community.
While the intentions of these groups are no doubt good, they fail to address the complex nature of homelessness. Instead of helping the homeless, these efforts can serve as a barrier — not a bridge — to getting homeless individuals off the street and into stable housing.
Think of it this way: you see someone fall overboard on a ship; would you throw them a life preserver or would you throw them a sandwich? Homeless individuals in Downtown — many of who are struggling with addiction and mental illness — need services, not sandwiches, to truly turn their lives around.
Despite this, as many as 80 groups and individuals currently come Downtown to feed the homeless.
The fact is that street feedings deprive the homeless of having access to the services they need to rebuild their lives. These feedings can serve as a crutch and enable homeless individuals to stay on the streets and avoid the assistance of outreach workers who are trained to help break the cycle of homelessness. Street feedings also don’t offer homeless individuals the opportunity to wash up or have access to a restroom, which is not only an issue of health but of dignity.
What many don’t know is that these street feedings are also duplicative, as there are a number of service providers throughout Downtown that already offer meals at their facilities. More than 1,250 meals are offered in Downtown on any given day. These meals are professionally prepared — ensuring that the food is both fresh and healthy — something that is vitally important as many homeless individuals have weakened immune systems and are susceptible to illness.
In-house meals served by providers including Father Joe’s Villages, Loving Spoonfuls, Rachel Women’s Center (Catholic Charities), PATH, The Salvation Army and The Alpha Project are well-organized and ensure that those who attend have access to those who are best trained to help them address the issues that have led to their homelessness.
All of the organizations that provide meal services need help — which is how interested groups can make a difference without the current negative and unintended consequences. Whether it be financial assistance or serving food, working with established service providers in Downtown provides the best opportunity to help the homeless in concrete and constructive ways.
These service organizations also are in the best position to ensure that donations such as blankets, sleeping bags and clothing are distributed in the most efficient and thoughtful way. Too often, groups simply toss clothing, blankets, tarps and tents on the street — leaving homeless individuals to fight over the most in-demand items while other less desired items are left strewn about the street. This creates a mob-like atmosphere that is dangerous and disruptive.
To that end, we have created the San Diego Meal Service Program, a centralized community platform designed to connect public feeding groups with local service providers. The ultimate goal is to provide the most good for those in need. Located on the Downtown San Diego Partnership’s Clean & Safe website, this easy-to-use networking tool allows churches, Rotaries, universities, scout troops and other eager volunteer groups to connect with local service providers looking for support.
Homelessness is and should be everyone’s concern. We applaud those who do not avert their eyes from the suffering of the less fortunate and who are willing to work to improve the lives of those in need. But we must be mindful about how good intentions can have unintended consequences.
We urge all those who hear the call to help our homeless brothers and sisters to work through the San Diego Meal Service Program to redirect good intentions into more positive outcomes for the betterment of our entire community.
—Jim Vargas, president/CEO of Father Joe’s Villages; Miles McPherson is pastor of The Rock Church; Elaine Therrien of Loving Spoonfuls; and Kris Michell, CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership; all are founders of the San Diego Meal Service program. To participate, visit tinyurl.com/pclbka6.