Panel aims to combat San Diego homelessness

by Caitlin Johnson

Last Thursday, a small crowd gathered in the back streets of downtown San Diego. The evening sun sank below the skyline, illuminating the rain-soaked ground as a cold chill swept the air. In the distance stood a large white tent, looming like a beacon against the darkening sky. Normally the structure serves as a haven for the homeless during the winter months, but this night held a different purpose.

Many concerned citizens came together to discuss the ongoing issue of homelessness in an event put together by Voice of San Diego. The event took place in a winter shelter managed by the Alpha Project, a nonprofit human services organization. Attendees shuffled in just as volunteers finished serving dinner to the shelter’s occupants. We took our seats in haphazard rows facing a small makeshift stage. This was their living space, and tonight we were their guests.


Once the crowd had settled, journalist Kelly Bennett took to the stage to welcome us. She has been a part of an ongoing effort by Voice of San Diego to analyze the scope of homelessness in our area and what is currently being done to help alleviate it. Bennett said that, at any given time, it’s estimated that close to 1,000 individuals are sleeping on the streets in downtown.

While the city is poised to celebrate the opening of a permanent homeless service center next month called Connections Housing, It’s only a small step in the right direction. Panel speakers acknowledged the need for additional centers and a lack of funding for similar projects was a recurring theme that night.

Photo courtesy of Sam Hodgson
Photo courtesy of Sam Hodgson

Because funding can be difficult to come by, organizations such as the Alpha Project rely on the generosity of others who can donate time and money. Much of the financing for such programs comes from sponsors, but there’s always a need for additional assistance. The homelessness issue is simply too complicated for one cut-and-dry solution. Previous Alpha Project employee Kelly Knight insisted that collaboration, communication and cooperation between different agencies and charities is a good place to start.

“We need to think more broadly and work together to fix this issue,” Knight said.

Many have already found a way out of desperation thanks to aid received from these programs, and a few were more than happy to share their stories. One of the standout tales belong to Danny McCray, who currently runs security and logistics for the Girls Think Tank Transitional Storage Center.

His story began in Los Angeles, where he worked as a lab technician for a government-funded program implemented to assist unskilled workers. However, once the funding ran out, McCray found himself without a means of supporting himself and his wife. No longer able to afford their home, they packed their essentials and headed for San Diego on a bus. Upon arrival, the McCrays discovered the difficulty of finding accommodations as a couple. Although his wife was offered refuge at one of the shelters, she refused, unwilling to leave her husband behind.

“She was going nowhere without me,” McCray recalls. “With tears streaming down my face … I reassured her we were going to make it.”

And they did. Networking with the Alpha Project, McCray was able to land a security job at the winter shelter, which eventually led to his current position with the Girls Think Tank. He expressed his deepest gratitude for all the help he and his wife received along the way, and now uses his story to inspire others who are presently facing similar adversities.

Photo courtesy of Sam Hodgson
Photo courtesy of Sam Hodgson

While each tale of recovery is unique, none are ever easy. Speaker Kimberly Becker recounted her experiences as a drug addict, and the difficult path she traversed to finally come clean with help from Rachel’s Women’s Center. Becker, now independent and drug-free, currently lives in a studio apartment with the help of the center’s Independent Living Program. She attributed her success to the support she received from the center and emphasized the importance of having a strong relationship with such institutions.

“Even people who appear OK are one bad day away from trouble,” Becker said.

Unfortunately, this sentiment is still true for many San Diegans today. Upon conclusion of the panel, I spoke with Ronald Puglia, a patron of the winter shelter. A victim of a bad divorce, Puglia is 65 years old and has been staying at the shelter for the past three weeks. Unless he can establish housing for himself using the program’s services, he will be back on the street once the shelter closes next month. Puglia’s options are limited because of his waning ability to rejoin the workforce. Despite this, he maintains hope for the success of welfare programs and events that raise awareness about the issues surrounding homelessness.

I left the panel knowing I would be going home to a hot shower and my warm bed. My belongings were in place. I knew where I would be going the next day and I had solid plans for the future. People such as Puglia don’t have that luxury.

The phrase “no one chooses to be homeless” continues to echo through my mind as I remind myself of the tireless efforts put forth by so many already. Simply being aware of the issue of homelessness is not enough—steps must be taken if we are to make positive changes in the lives of the less fortunate. Contributing to programs such as the Alpha Project is incredibly important and enables more people to experience growth in the same way as Becker and the McCrays.

To learn more or find out how to help, search online for a program that fits your schedule. There are plenty of places to start, and any sort of assistance is always appreciated. It’s true that every bit of help counts, and even the smallest of gestures can make a big difference in someone’s future.