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A PATH to housing: Specialists reach out to those in La Jolla who are homeless for the holidays

PATH lead outreach specialist Jayna Lee speaks to a man who was sleeping on the street in La Jolla.
PATH lead outreach specialist Jayna Lee speaks to a man who was sleeping on the street in La Jolla.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

As La Jollans get ready to celebrate the holidays at home — theirs or someone else’s — those who work for People Assisting the Homeless are reaching out to those whose homes are La Jolla’s sidewalks.

PATH and Father Joe’s Villages, two homeless-assistance groups working in concert to provide services to people in need in La Jolla, took the La Jolla Light along on an outreach mission in the early morning of Dec. 7 before rain started.

During a typical outing, outreach specialists visit “hot spots” where homeless people are known to be and see what services they can offer them. Services range from snacks, clothing and other basic needs (like rain ponchos, on this day) to a ride to a shelter for a shower or the phone number of a caseworker to start the process of getting them into housing. The teams also respond to reports of homeless encampments filed through the city of San Diego’s Get It Done app.

“What’s great about San Diego is we have a coordinated goal, so even though there are different organizations [working to end homelessness], we work together to help different clients,” said PATH lead outreach specialist Jayna Lee. “It’s nice to share each other’s resources. We meet every week to talk about the highest acuity cases to see what we can find for that one client.”

PATH’s rapid-response team covers the city of San Diego with support from other organizations, such as Father Joe’s Villages and the Alpha Project, in different communities. The number of team members dedicated to any given area is determined from the point-in-time count, a federal requirement designed to determine the number of people experiencing homelessness. Though the Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the count to be done every two years, San Diego completes it every January.

Miguel Figueroa and Jayna Lee speak to a homeless man to see what services they may be able to offer.
Father Joe’s Villages outreach supervisor Miguel Figueroa and PATH lead outreach specialist Jayna Lee speak to a homeless man to see what services they may be able to offer.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

“It’s not perfect data, but it’s the best way for us to know the population of people living outdoors in a certain area … and ... right-size the coverage,” said PATH Associate Director of Outreach Brian Gruters.

Some of the unhoused people in La Jolla have been on Father Joe Villages’ and PATH’s radar for a while and are on a first-name basis with outreach workers.

“Anyone we see we will help with those basic needs, which is part of the rapport-building process,” Lee said. “We don’t want to meet them once and try to get them into housing. We go for quality over quantity. The more we interact with them, the more we can help them with what they want or need, and that makes ultimate case management easier. If they don’t want it the first time, that’s OK. We build that relationship, we remember them and they remember us.

“Sometimes you have to talk to someone five or six times before they say ‘OK, I do need help with something,’ and once you make that connection, getting more help is easier.”

But getting that help can have challenges.

Bob, whom PATH has known for a while, was sleeping next to the Vons supermarket on Girard Avenue. Lee said he is close to getting into housing.

“He has a housing match, but it’s a difficult case because he has a female friend that doesn’t want him to take it for fear of the couple being separated because she is not included in the housing plan,” Lee said. “She can go with him if she pays her portion, but we haven’t been able to explain that to her because … she gets very upset.”

Soon after speaking with Bob, Father Joe’s Villages outreach worker Deonte Victorian spent several minutes on the phone to check the status of Bob’s housing and see if they could find a way to have his girlfriend go with him.

Don, another person resting near Vons, said he has been living outside for 12 years in San Diego County, seven of them in La Jolla. He plays flute and said he wants to stay in La Jolla because of the tourists who give him money when he plays music on the street.

“In the summer every day, people from around the world come here,” he said. “If you move me to La Mesa or something, I’m going to have to come back here. This is where I live. This is where I make money.”

Don told his story of growing up near Los Angeles, why he admires teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg and why he doesn’t drive a car. But not how he came to be homeless.

“Some people don’t want to leave the communities they know,” Gruters said. “Don didn’t want to go downtown. … It’s not that he doesn’t want help, he just doesn’t want what’s available, which is a shelter bed downtown. That makes sense to me. I like where I live, I have a community there and I wouldn’t want to just uproot and go somewhere else. Here, Don knows people, he has a routine and knows where things like the bathrooms are.”

Some of the people contacted by PATH didn't want services or other help and just wanted to sleep.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Matt was resting near the CVS Pharmacy on Eads Avenue. When approached by PATH outreach specialists, he initially declined help.

“Once we offered him snacks, he started talking,” Lee said. “He explained he had previously qualified for social services benefits but has since been denied. He also said he has issues with law enforcement. So we’re going to speak to him again, this time with an advocate that can walk him through the process. If he isn’t doing this himself, he would have a better chance.”

The team noted that different people want different things. One woman didn’t want food or money but rather a pair of glasses.

When offered food, a care kit or services, one person at the Chevron gas station at La Jolla Boulevard and Pearl Street said he just wanted a shirt. He said his car had been impounded by police and he was working to get it back. “Once I do that, I can get out of here,” he said.

Some have argued that providing services to people and allowing them to remain on the street encourages them to stay there. But the team said building rapport is a necessary intermediate step.

“Typically it takes an average of 70 days for placement into a permanent home,” Gruters said. “So if you call us about someone in the park, they won’t be taken away the second you call. As soon as we start working with them, we are looking at getting them into a home.”

One option is permanent supportive housing, which pairs housing with case management and supportive services and is offered to the oldest people, those who have been homeless for a long time and those with immediate health needs.

The challenge, Gruters said, is “that isn’t always in line with the urgency that comes from the community, when there is someone really visible or causing a ruckus or selling drugs. It seems like we are not on parallel tracks with that. But it’s important we reach those with the highest acuity.”

Other options include rental assistance, rapid rehousing (short-term rental assistance and services), income assistance through Social Security benefits, or moving people to the downtown shelter.

“We get calls asking us to remove people that set up camp. We’re not here to remove them, we’re here to assist them,” said Father Joe’s Villages outreach supervisor Miguel Figueroa. “If they want information, services or immediate needs, we can help them with that. Or if they want to get into housing, we can help with that.”

Outreach specialists from PATH drive around La Jolla in a custom van with supplies and space to transport people if needed.
Outreach specialists from PATH drive around La Jolla in a custom van with supplies and space to transport people if needed.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Lee agreed that the public perception is that PATH is assigned to remove homeless people.

“That’s the toughest part because, when the person is still there after we get called, it looks like we didn’t do anything,” she said. “In fact, it takes a lot of time to get to that client, and we can’t force them into shelter if they don’t want to or treatment if they don’t want to.”

But Figueroa said he feels the team is making progress bit by bit.

“Finding those new ways to get to know the person, when they recognize you right off the bat and engage in conversation, opens that door,” he said. “It goes from ‘Go away’ to ‘Hey, can you give me a ride to those showers you mentioned a week ago?’ Little things like that help us, and it’s great to see. Our efforts here are showing. Not in a big way, but we’re getting there.” ◆