By Mimi Pollack
“Being homeless is exhausting!” said Ann Marie Christian, a retired caregiver who is disabled.
Both she and Randy Leighton, who said he was an out-of-work civil engineer and also disabled, sat at the outdoor table in the parking lot of Jewish Family Service. They are clients of Dreams for Change, a non-profit organization that works with homeless individuals and families who live in their cars.
San Diego has become a magnet for homeless people while shelters and government agencies struggle to provide necessary help. Not only that, these aren’t “one size fits all” folks.
There are generational homeless, those who want to be on the streets for one reason or another, those with drug or alcohol related problems, or those who live in their cars with some, but limited, resources. For the latter, Dreams for Change strives to be an agency which can assist them.
The program was started in 2009, the result of Dr. Teresa Smith’s frustration with the existing traditional homeless service providers and government programs. Smith explained she felt that a new kind of homelessness was not being served — those who had no clue how to get help as the existing shelters shocked or scared them. In addition, there were barriers for families or couples to stay together as men and women are separated.
She went on to say that many groups had anti-poverty contracts from the government, some up to 20 years, but not much actual change was occurring. Smith wanted to see results and felt they could be more readily achieved by narrowing the focus, something that wasn’t happening at the agency where she previously worked.
Specifically, Smith wanted to provide more forward thinking ways to serve a population with a car and limited resources, but not enough to find stable housing. To date, Dreams for Change has helped over 3,500 people.
Dreams for Change advocates an action plan that places emphasis on finding permanent housing, employment, training, and emergency support. They 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.
Smith estimates their success rate so far is about 60 percent. However, that success hasn’t come without growing pains. Many of their clients are the working poor, seniors, or people with disabilities, such as Christian and Leighton. With the housing shortage in San Diego, it’s hard to find suitable places for them to live and transition from their cars to a more stable or permanent environment.
Smith got together with students from San Diego State University’s School of Social Work and Cal Western law students to look at both the social and legal aspects of the idea. They came up with a proposal and a prototype, presenting it to a collaborative of other non-profits and local churches, but everyone turned them down. The “Not In My Back Yard” mentality prevailed, and many churches did not want a large group on their property at one time.
It was at this point that Smith realized the necessity of forming her own non-profit, Dreams for Change, in order to start the Safe Parking Program herself, and she continued the search for a church that would be willing to host.
Finally, one church agreed to help and the first parking site opened on April 5, 2010. Problems arose, however, because while the pastor of the church was on board with the idea, the business manager wasn’t. Dreams for Change soon left.
They went on to try two more churches, both unsuccessfully. Then, Dreams for Change partnered with a nonprofit in Chula Vista and found what they needed at the New Life Assembly on 28th Street, where they have remained for years. At the end of last summer the organization was informed the Chula Vista property was going to be rented to a different tenant and the hunt was on again to replace the site — which now contained 40 active vehicles and a wait list of over 100 vehicles.
Pat Libby, director of University of San Diego’s Non-Profit Leadership Program put Smith in contact with Jewish Family Service, an organization that hadn’t even been on Smith’s radar. An unexpected and fruitful partnership was born in October 2016.
This partnership has since grown, and they have worked together to provide better services for their clients.
The Safe Parking Program at Jewish Family Service operates from 6 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. (7 a.m. on weekends), seven days a week, 365 days a year. It is contained in a fenced parking lot between buildings and provides parking spaces for 40 cars and around 70 people, including individuals and families.
In addition, Jewish Family Service is now providing food from its Corner Market, which also receives food from Feeding San Diego. Recently, Starbucks joined in.
Jewish Family Service and Dreams for Change have also brought in porta-potties, a sink, and allowed access to an indoor shower.
For Christian and Leighton, both in their late 50s, the program has been a Godsend.
“I finally feel safe at night,” Christian said. “Before, I was sleeping in the Walmart parking lot and I never felt safe there. There were drug deals going on and some shady people hanging around. Here, for the most part, everyone watches out for each other, and the children can play safely.”
Leighton nodded his head in agreement and added: “When Guillermo graduated from SDSU last week, we had a barbeque for him and everyone came! We are a dysfunctional, functional family.”
Guillermo Haro Miramontes is the lead case manager, who started as a volunteer, and has since been hired part time. Guillermo has an office in the Jewish Family Service building and also meets with the clients at the tables outside near the designated parking lot.
For the most part, things are peaceful in the parking lot. Some tiffs are to be expected. People don’t always get along in such close quarters, and it can be hard to wake up early and be out by 6:30 a.m. Pets are allowed and there are occasional incidents like the time one of the dogs jumped out of a car window and went after a smaller dog.
Dreams for Change has some ground rules for its clients. Families and individuals can park there overnight as long as they meet eight requirements, which include being clean and sober for a minimum of 24 hours and agreeing to complete various applications, such as intake assessment forms to determine qualifying benefits and potentially moving from their vehicle to more stable or permanent housing. There are also some parking lot rules that participants must be willing to follow.
All in all, for most of the people using the program, it beats being on the streets at night. As for the daytime, the children go to school and some of the clients have jobs. Two senior women were hired by Jewish Family Service in part-time positions and one of those positions has since become permanent.
Although disabled, Christian is hoping to find a job as a caregiver.