By Ken Denbow
Mommy parks under a street light every night, otherwise bad people bother us.
This is a good street light. Last night there were trees by the light. Shadows jumped all night. That scared me. When I get scared, I cry. Mommy says I shouldn’t cry ‘cause I’m 7 now, but I think it scared her, too, ‘cause I heard her crying after she thought I was asleep.
Yesterday we almost got to sleep in a bed. Mommy told the lady at the apartment place that she had a job, and rent money, but Mommy didn’t have something called a deposit. The lady said “no deposit, no apartment.”
I used to have a bed. Before Mommy lost her job. I had a bathroom, too. Now we use McDonalds. I like the blower to get dry. It’s warm!
Solving this little girl’s problem is easy, because she and her mother are fictional. With a few strokes of the keyboard, Prince Charming arrives and whisks them into a Hallmark Channel ending at his wonderful house with a swing in the backyard.
But what about flesh and blood, real life people living on the streets of America’s Finest City? Those homeless people who don’t have a miraculous ending looming beyond the next commercial?
There are approximately 8,500 homeless people in San Diego. Nearly 25 percent of them are women, and many, both moms and dads, have children with them. Some are homeless because of bad decisions, mental illness, or by choice. But not all.
There are shelters set up throughout the city, but there are not enough beds to house everyone in need. Some churches ease the shortage by donating space on a short-term basis. One of these churches is St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Del Cerro, which housed several families from Jan. 17 – 31. Guests ranged in age from mid-60s down to 32 days old.
“Many of our guests are situational homeless,” said Joan (pronounced JoAnn) McCollom, who heads the temporary shelter program at St. Dunstan’s. “They are homeless because they lost a job, had a home foreclosed, or similar situations.”
St. Dunstan’s is part of the Interfaith Shelter Network (ISN), an association of various church denominations throughout San Diego which, for the past 28 years, has provided temporary shelter to those suffering from situational homelessness. In the 2013–2014 winter, 264 people received shelter.
The ISN is divided into seven branches. Each branch has several churches that donate space for a two-week period, on a rotational basis, to provide shelter for approximately 12 homeless people. In the east county branch, there are nine churches in the rotation, providing a total of 18 weeks starting in mid-December.
The program not only provides a place to sleep, complete with showers and the amenities of a motel, but it also provides a family-style dinner each night prepared and served by volunteers from St. Dunstan’s and other churches and synagogues.
“We coordinate the menu with the outside organizations to make sure there is not a solid week of lasagna or spaghetti,” McCollom said. “We also provide breakfast and food to make a sack lunch.”
The St. Dunstan Youth Group provides and serves a unique meal for one night of the two-week stay, by sponsoring a Dinner Mystery Theatre, written, directed and performed by members of the youth group. The St. Dunstan Choir incorporates a musical concert into their turn in the kitchen.
The ISN works closely with Crisis House and the Volunteer America offices in El Cajon. The organizations screen all guests and are the only entry into the program. The organizations provide social workers to counsel guests.
ISN is partially funded by a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The grant is used to buy air mattresses, sleeping bags, toiletries and other necessities.
“We issue each person a bin with the necessities when they check into the program,” said Dorothy Leonard of San Carlos, who sits on the board of directors for ISN. “They return their bin of supplies when they check out of the shelters.”
Each church raises money to meet local expenses. St. Dunstan’s relies on a rummage sale to finance their entire outreach program, a portion of which is used for the shelter. The food for dinners is donated by volunteers who prepare and serve it as well.
The persons using the shelter live under strict rules. There are no alcohol or drugs permitted, nor are any weapons allowed. Each occupant is responsible for his own equipment, and they all share responsibility for keeping the facility clean. On weekdays, they must be out of the shelter no later than 7 a.m. and return at 5 p.m. Most spend their day working or looking for jobs. The ISN provides bus passes or gasoline money to aid in the job search. Children stay in their own school as much as possible, which also requires transportation.
“We go with them to the gas station and pay for the gas,” Leonard said. “We also provide them with a pre-paid cell phone if they are looking for work so a prospective employer can reach them. The schools need a means of contacting parents in an emergency.”
Workshops are provided on Saturdays in career planning and in budgeting by volunteers who are specialists in the fields.
“We provide child care on Saturdays so the adults can attend the workshops,” McCollom stated. “We also provide hot dogs and other picnic supplies on holidays.”
Two volunteers from the group serving the food stay overnight with the guests to provide a presence should something happen that needs immediate attention.
“One night, a woman went into labor,” McCollom recalled. “She was rushed to the hospital, and returned two days later with a new baby.”
Last year, 57 percent of the participants found more permanent housing after being in the network. Twenty-nine percent of the adults were employed; 52 percent exited the program having income.
Not a final answer to the homeless problem, but it does help. It costs the taxpayers nothing for new buildings or facilities, or people to run the day-to-day operation.
Do the participants appreciate it? That can be answered with a resounding yes. Many return to volunteer — to pay-it-forward to others who are where they once were.
–Contact Ken Denbow at email@example.com.