December 8, 2021

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Global Business News

Persistence, hope and a thick skin: When homeless turn down help, outreach teams keep trying

Imagine being a door-to-door sales person assigned to a neighborhood where nobody wants what you’re selling.

That’s what it has been like for some homeless outreach teams working certain streets in downtown San Diego.

“We were told to look for people who don’t want to talk to us,” said Garrett Williams, an outreach worker for Father Joe’s Villages for the past two years.

The task can be challenging. Williams said he and his partner Alfonso Hampton have had limited success over the past year when they’ve tried to help about 50 people with a new focus on the hardest-to-reach.

“If I’m going to be completely honest, I want to say about four,” he said when asked how many of their clients had received housing.

While the number may seem disappointingly low, it also can be seen as encouraging. The team is focused on people with mental issues and addictions, and many may have been on the street a decade or longer, consistently turning down offers for help.

The effort to get people off the street in downtown San Diego is about to expand dramatically, and it includes a strategy to help chronically homeless people who have lived for years without shelter.

Beginning Monday, Hampton and Williams will be among an army of outreach teams from Father Joe’s Villages, the Alpha Project, People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) and Downtown San Diego Partnership who will focus on specific areas from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily for about a month.

The new push is in response to concerns about a growing number of homeless encampments on city streets. Downtown San Diego Partnership conducts a monthly count of homeless people sleeping on sidewalks and in cars downtown, and results released Thursday found 1,160 people on the street. That was the highest number since 2017, when the city was in the midst of a deadly hepatitis A outbreak that was linked to the unsanitary conditions of sidewalk encampments.

Outreach teams will work specific neighborhoods in hopes of building relationships and trust with people over time. Three hundred beds will be added at four city-funded shelters to take in more people, and in August the county plans to open three 25-bed safe havens that will be alternatives to shelters for people with behavioral and addiction issues.

Four Father Joe’s Villages outreach teams already have narrowed their focus, with each two-member team working a specific area of East Village near the nonprofit’s downtown campus.

On their Thursday morning shift last week, Hampton and Williams stopped as a man pushing an overloaded shopping cart passed, talking to himself.

“Those are signs of mental health concerns,” Williams said. “That’s who we want to reach out to.”

Although the man brushed him off, Williams said he was not discouraged because he at least had a brief conversation with him.

“We don’t want to be judgmental whatsoever,” he said. “We’ll say, ‘Hey man, we’re doing this new thing and we’d like to talk to you about it. But if you’re not willing to, is it OK if we at least see how you’re doing every now and then?’”

Hampton recalled one man they met on the street who wanted nothing to do with the outreach team. After seeing the two walking by for about three weeks, however, he got curious and asked what they were up to.

“We ended up talking to him about 30 minutes, just chit-chatting about regular things,” Hampton said. “And he said, ‘You know, I want out of my current situation. Can you help me out?’ Just that day, he wanted a change.”

Walking their four-block assigned area during their morning shift, Williams and Hampton set out to find some of the homeless people they have been working with over the past months. It can be a hit-or-miss task.

“Mr. Douglas?” Williams called out as he walked past a row of tents along 16th Street just south of Commercial Street. “Mr. Douglas? Good morning, Mr. Douglas. Anybody home? I’m sorry for being loud, guys. I apologize.”

One of the men in the encampment told Williams that the man he was looking for had left. Williams was disappointed, as he was hoping for a breakthrough. Douglas had called him the day before and wanted to talk, but he would not find him that morning.

Williams still has reason to be encouraged, however. He has been meeting with a homeless man who uses a wheelchair and spent much of his life incarcerated, but had repeatedly declined long-term help. After weeks of talks, he is willing to accept housing, Williams said.

The two continued their walk, looking for familiar faces.

“People I’ve already talked to and don’t want to talk to me at all are exactly what I’m looking for,” Williams said. “I’m expecting that it’s going to take a couple of weeks, possibly a couple of months, to really start having deep conversations and get them to a point where they feel like they can trust me to start building a case plan for them. It’s all up to them. If they don’t want shelter, we understand. But if they do, we will help them get in.”

On another street, they say hello to Deanna, a woman living in a tent below an overpass. She had not wanted to talk before and didn’t want to give her name, but today she opened up.

A homeless woman named Deanna sits in a tent below an overpass in downtown San Diego.

Deanna, who declined to give her last name, is staying in a tent below an overpass in downtown San Diego. She said she does not want to go into a shelter, but agreed to talk with Father Joe’s Villages outreach workers who stopped by.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“Everybody’s one paycheck away from being homeless,” she said. “That happened to me.”

Deanna said she lost her job of 14 years a couple of years ago and became homeless in 2020.

“There’s so much trouble when you suddenly have nothing,” she said.

Despite those hardships, Deanna said she has no interest in going into a shelter.

“It’s like being in a prison voluntarily,” she said, adding that she is working with a nonprofit to get Social Security payments that may lead to her own place.

While the outreach team can’t talk her into a shelter on this day, Hampton said he was encouraged by their conversation.

“Deanna, today, she wants to talk,” he said. “Before, she didn’t want to be bothered. As long as we do our part and our effort, eventually they’ll come around. The more we talk to them, the more they open up.”

On another street, Williams caught up with a man pushing another overloaded shopping cart. After a brief conversation, he felt encouraged that the man seemed open to talk about housing, but said he couldn’t stop at the moment because he was busy.

“We’re learning that as long as we stay consistent with what we’re doing, that guy who declined housing, he’s coming back to us,” Williams said. “Because we’re patient.”

While the day-to-day outcomes can be discouraging, the two men said the headway they are making keeps them hopeful.

Maybe Williams will find Mr. Douglas on another day. Maybe Deanna will change her mind about shelters. Maybe the men pushing shopping carts will find time to talk about housing.

“It’s all about hope,” Williams said. “You can’t give up hope on the people you work with.”