By Donnie Dee
Whatever we have been doing to solve homelessness in San Diego is not working. Up 14 percent from last year, the number of people in the City of San Diego experiencing homelessness continues to rise. County-wide, the numbers tell the same story. Despite our efforts, the number of those in need of housing, shelter and rehabilitative services is growing.
Truth is, people who experience homelessness are people just like you and me. Life just hasn’t turned out the way they thought it would and, I often wonder, if I had made a few different choices or been given a different life situation, would I be in a similar circumstance?
I think of a man – let’s call him James – who had his first drink at 3 years old when his mother started giving him whiskey to soothe his asthma. Fast forward to adulthood; he’s been an alcoholic since he was a child. A life of addiction is all he has ever known. Our building at the San Diego Rescue Mission is full of people like James who would say, “Life just didn’t turn out the way I thought it would.”
Through people like James, my misconceptions about men, women, and children who face homelessness have been challenged. The idea that homelessness is a choice or that people dealing with housing instability are not motivated to work is untrue. In reality, many adults in our programs have jobs but cannot afford housing. Others suffer from mental illness, chronic substance abuse, significant medical issues, or any combination of all three. These individuals often cycle in and out of shelters, jails, hospitals, and treatment programs, desperate for help that will change their lives.
What else have I learned in my nine months as president and CEO of the Rescue Mission?
First and foremost, there is a difference between meeting the needs and addressing the needs of those navigating homelessness. We can provide food and shelter but we must address the root issues impacting the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable in our community. Meeting immediate needs is vital, but we must collectively address the long-term issues affecting our community. Poverty, mental illness, access to health care, childhood trauma, addiction, job security, and affordable housing are shaping the future of thousands in our city. We must look deeper and address these issues if we want to change the tide of homelessness.
The second thing I’ve learned is the difference between relocation and rehabilitation. We cannot simply relocate people from neighborhood to neighborhood. Those experiencing homelessness need to be engaged with the necessary wraparound services they need to change their lives, not simply be relocated to an area where they are less visible; 77 percent of those experiencing homelessness in our city became homeless while living in San Diego County. These are our neighbors and this is our problem to solve.
Homelessness in San Diego is an ongoing, everyday passion for those of us who deal firsthand with these struggling individuals. Every day people show up on our doorstep and too many have to wait for the comprehensive services offered at the San Diego Rescue Mission. These individuals are not hopeless or helpless; they are just experiencing homelessness. That’s the message we have for our clients in 2018.
We have a vision to help our clients make these changes so we’re taking steps to narrow our focus and pursue more measurable, long term results to keep people off the streets and provide a safe environment where there is a real possibility for lives to be transformed. We are focused on five critical objectives for our clients before they officially graduate from our 12-month residential program. These objectives include: sobriety, experiencing God, getting a job, finding a place to live, and establishing a tangible, reliable support network (church, friends, family, etc.). We know these are big objectives but we are committed to addressing their needs and offering the rehabilitative services they need to build a transformed life.
Today, our need is great and now is the time. With God’s grace and the kindness and generosity of San Diegans, we pray that we can work together as a compassionate community to find long-term solutions to lovingly address the needs of our neighbors experiencing homelessness.
Donnie Dee is president and CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission.
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