Guillermo Haro Miramontes and Teresa Smith of Dreams for Change. Photo by Mimi Pollack

By Mimi Pollack

San Diego has become a magnet for different kinds of homeless people, such as generational homeless, those who want to be on the streets for one reason or another, those with drug or alcohol related problems, and finally the working homeless or homeless who live in their cars with some, but limited resources. Shelters and government agencies struggle to keep up and provide help.

Concerned about this challenge, Dr. Teresa Smith created the non-profit organization Dreams for Change in 2009 to help homeless people who have only their cars to live in.

Smith wants to support homeless and low-income people who are not being served by traditional service providers and government programs. Dreams for Change advocates an action plan that places emphasis on finding permanent housing, employment, training and emergency support. The organization also started the Safe Parking Program for people who live out of their cars, so they would have a safe place to park at night. To date, some 3,500 homeless people have been helped.

Dreams for Change now has two sites for their Safe Parking Program, the parking lot of Jewish Family Service of San Diego on Balboa Avenue in Kearny Mesa, and New Life Assembly on 28th Street in Golden Hill. Families and individuals can park there overnight, as long as they meet basic requirements, which include being clean and sober a minimum of 24 hours and agreeing to complete various applications, such as intake assessment forms to determine qualifying benefits, and having plans to move from their vehicle to more stable or permanent housing. The last one isn’t easy as there is a shortage of affordable housing in San Diego, and finding suitable housing can be a challenge. There are also parking lot rules that participants in the Safe Parking Program must be willing to follow.

A sign for the Safe Parking Program.

Smith oversees the various programs that Dreams for Change now has to offer, including Safe Parking, Thrive San Diego, Eat Better Today, Achieving Financial Independence and a program that works with seniors. She also has to find ways to fund all these programs, relying on fundraisers, donations, and writing grants.

One partnership that has worked well is with Jewish Family Service. In 2016, the organization approached JFS, and since then the two nonprofits have worked together to shelter the homeless. The program operates from 6 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. (7 a.m. on weekends) year-round. There is a fenced parking lot with spaces for 40 cars and around 70 people, including individuals and families. In addition, JFS provides those who park with donated food from its “Corner Market.” This market gets food from a variety of sources, including Feeding San Diego and recently Starbucks. There are portable toilets, a sink, and access to an indoor shower.

The day that I visited, I saw children playing in the parking lot, adults gathered around the outdoor tables talking, and some people sitting quietly in their cars. There were also family pets, including cats and dogs.

The program is self-contained and operates almost completely outdoors, with the exception of case management sessions that Dreams for Change conducts in rooms provided by JFS. The lead case manager, Guillermo Haro Miramontes, walked around greeting everyone by name, and you could see how well all the clients responded to him. It is important for the organization to build rapport and get results, helping their clients find jobs and housing.

Most people stay between three and six months until they are able to stabilize. So far, they have had about a 60 percent success rate, including two seniors that were hired part time by JFS.

Mimi Pollack is an English as a Second Language teacher and a freelance writer.

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