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Team effort aims at homeless

Homeless get HOT approach

Bewhiskered cross-dresser “Christine” has been the public face of homelessness in La Jolla for years.

Day after day “she” has stood on street corners smoking cigarettes and drinking Cokes, sleeping in doorways. Sometimes troublesome but mostly minding her own business, she’s been seen — but not cared for, a part of the community, yet apart from it.

Last week, Christine finally parted company with the streets. Thanks to the city of San Diego’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), she finally had her own home.

“They’re transitioning her to a paying room, a permanent housing situation, which is a big deal for us,” said Sgt. Richard Schnell head of the outreach team. “We convinced her to get Social Security: She’s eligible. She hasn’t been on the streets in La Jolla for five months.”

For the past decade, the outreach team has been pioneering a new multidisciplinary approach to treating chronic homelessness, a seemingly intractable problem compounded by the fact that it is not illegal.

Response to calls

“The Homeless Outreach Team started in 2000 in a response to patrol officers getting calls for homelessness all the time,” said Schnell noting police were “overwhelmed.”

“Nine times out of 10 it is a mental health or human services combination issue,” he added.

The outreach team subsequently was formed, partnering patrol officers with mental health clinicians and caseworkers who cooperate in contacting, assessing and treating clients individually.

The breadth — and depth — of the homeless problem is plain to see accompanying Schnell and colleague John Liening, who deals with serial inebriates on the street, in a ride along on a recent weekday morning throughout La Jolla.

“See those two guys sitting on the corner of your (565 Pearl St.) building? They’re chronic alcoholics most likely,” pointed out Schnell. “Ninety percent of the people we talk with in La Jolla are chronic alcoholics.”

Small but ‘regular’

La Jolla’s homeless population is comparatively small, a couple dozen mostly “regulars,” noted Schnell as the outreach van heads towards Vons Market at 7544 Girard Ave. with its recycling center, another homeless hot spot. In front of the store is an abandoned shopping cart and surrounding the supermarket on retail property is evidence of makeshift shelters.

“We can’t go on private property without letters of authorization,” said Schnell, citing one of many frustrating legal “loopholes” complicating dealing with the homeless. “They could set up a tent on this property and there’s nothing we could do about it unless the owners told us to.”

Tight times

Later, near Hotel La Jolla At The Shores at 7955 La Jolla Shores Drive, Schnell and Liening find another homeless shelter beneath the bridge crossing over Torrey Pines Road. While inspecting the site, Liening talked about coping with chronic homelessness given austere government budgets and shrinking public resources in a deep recession.

“There’s a misconception by the public. They see somebody homeless or yelling, looking scary, and they call police and we come and take the person and they think, ‘This person is going to be taken care of, put where they need to go,’ ” he said.

That more often than not, added Liening, isn’t the case.

“We may take them to County Mental Health, but there are three million people in the city of San Diego and there are 23 beds in County Mental Health,” he said. “It’s insane. The reality is they get them stable ... and then they put them right back out on the street.”

After years of dealing with the homeless, neither Schnell nor Liening have all the answers. But they both know getting them off the street is the first step.

‘20-year process’

“Chronic homelessness doesn’t happen overnight,” said Schnell. “It’s a 20-year process. You’ve got to get them off the street. Nothing good happens on the street. If they don’t get better — they’re going to get worse.”

Liening said serial inebriates found drunk on the street are taken to the Sobering Center downtown. More than five times in the Sobering Center in a 30-day period qualifies them for jail. That’s where the Homeless Outreach Team with its multidisciplinary treatment approach intervenes.

“You try to use jail as a hammer for the chronic alcoholic,” he said. “They’ve been to the Sobering Center where they have an opportunity to go through treatment. If they refuse, they go to jail. They usually don’t like jail. After they’ve been in jail, we give them the opportunity to come back (treatment).”

Carrot and stick

Jail and the Homeless Outreach Team’s multidisciplinary approach is kind of the carrot and the stick, admits Schnell. But it works.

“We’ve been doing that for 10 years and it has proved to be incredibly successful,” he said. “Fifty or 60 percent of people who get into treatment get sober.”

Schnell said Christine was the perfect example of a successful Homeless Outreach team intervention.

“It’s illegal to sleep on the street in San Diego and that’s what we arrested her for,” he said. “Nobody was coming to talk to her. Then we finally started zeroing in on her with the HOT team and everybody working together and there was movement.”

Is Christine off the street for good? Only time will tell. But one thing’s for certain: Without the Homeless Outreach Team, she’s still be there for sure.

To report homeless issues, call (858) 490-3850